Incident management teams to change hands this week

Graphic created by Darla Hussey
Significant geographical features related to the Diamond Creek Fire.

By Ann McCreary

Fire managers succeeded in setting strategic fires on the north side of the Diamond Creek Fire, which they said was a crucial step preventing the fire from advancing north toward Canada.

Favorable conditions Monday afternoon (Aug. 7) allowed a helicopter to drop plastic spheres that ignite after they hit the ground. The strategically placed fires burned south toward the Diamond Creek Fire, creating a buffer zone that is critical to protecting Canada from the fire, which is burning 8.5 miles from the border.

The Diamond Creek Fire, now in its third week, had burned 12,278 acres in the Pasayten Wilderness as of Tuesday (Aug. 8).

The fire is burning in steep, rugged terrain about 16 air miles north of Mazama. The southern perimeter is about 3 miles north of Billy Goat Trailhead at the end of Eightmile Road.

The northern and southern perimeters of the fire have been the areas of greatest concern for members of the Pacific Northwest Team 2, a Type 1 incident management team that arrived July 29 to manage the fire.

“We have visited with our counterparts in Canada. They would like us to keep it out of Canada,” said John Szulc, team operations section chief.

With Monday’s successful aerial firing, it appeared more likely that Diamond Creek Fire could be restrained. “We achieved the buffer zone we’ve been talking about from the beginning,” said Kale Casey, an information officer with the team. “There is an extremely low chance of the fire moving to Canada,” he said.

On the southern end of the fire, crews using hand tools and heavy equipment have been working for several days to create a fire line in the vicinity of Billy Goat Trailhead. The line is being built as a contingency in case the fire, which has moved into nearby Drake Creek drainage, and travels from there to the Eightmile drainage, which flows into the Chewuch River drainage.

“This will give us some place to stand and fight,” said Robert Allen, deputy incident commander. “We know it’s going to continue marching to the south.”

The fire line extends west from Eightmile Road to the trailhead and east to the Upper Falls Creek Fire scar, which burned in 2014 and provides a natural barrier to the fire’s progress. Crews have been cutting, limbing and brushing vegetation and using excavator and feller bunchers to remove large diameter trees near the line that, if burned, could pose a danger of falling on firefighters.

Crews are tying the fire line into avalanche chutes that create natural fire breaks on either side of the drainage, said Casey. Hoses and sprinklers are also in place. Casey estimated the line is about two miles long.

Although the fire has moved into the Drake Creek drainage, “It’s not moving fast, and is going to be there the rest of the (fire) season,” Casey said.  Even if the fire containment line is not needed to fight the Diamond Creek Fire, it will be in place for the future, Casey said.

The Diamond Creek Fire forced closure of 18 trails in the Pasayten Wilderness, a popular destination for hikers, outfitters and hunters.

“This is one of the last areas that hasn’t seen significant wildfire in this wilderness, so there is a lot of dead and down (trees), beetle kill, heavy fuel load,” Casey said.

“Once we get through this fire season I don’t think you’ll see a lot of impact on that wilderness for years to come,” Casey said.

“Your fire history has pretty much put fire in every drainage except the ones to the north of where we are now.”

Successful burnout

The fires set to contain the northern edge of Diamond Creek Fire burned about 2,000 acres of beetle-killed timber near Larch Pass and the upper part of the West Fork of the Pasayten River near McCall Gulch, Casey said. The goal was to prevent the fire from moving east into the Ashnola River drainage.

“We identified these areas as key places where fire could flow north into the Ashnola River drainage and north into Canada,” said Kyle Cannon, an operations section chief for the incident management team.

“The burnout was successful. We have a nice buffer between the main fire moving north in to the West Fork of the Pasayten and the Ashnola River drainage, which flows into Canada,” he said.

The firing operation was completed Monday before thunderstorms moved through the area, bringing wind and scattered lighting, and a trace of precipitation. Several lightning strikes were recorded in the area but there were no reports of new fires, said Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency manager.

Helicopters with buckets were continuing to drop water when needed “to support the burn to the north,” Casey said.  Continued smoky conditions from the Diamond Creek Fire and fires in British Columbia intermittently hampered the use of aircraft. The fire had four helicopters assigned to it as of early this week, and another in Wenatchee that could be called, Casey said.

In addition to the work on the northern and southern fire perimeters, the incident management team was conducting structure protection assessments in Mazama, Lost River and along the Chewuch River. Crews were traveling through those areas conducting inventories of homes and structures, assessments of ingress and egress, water sources, Firewise properties, fuel treatments and other factors that would influence firefighting in those areas.

“We’ll continue while we’re here and have the manpower꿻o build this information for the future,” Casey said. Fire managers were also scouting for existing roads that could be used as potential fuel breaks if the fire continues moving south, he said.

The Type 1 incident management team was preparing to transfer management of the fire to a Nevada Type 3 team expected to be in place by Thursday (Aug. 10). Type 1 teams specialize in managing the largest and most complex fires involving many local, regional, state, national and federal resources over a long period.

Casey said the Type 1 team was charged with developing a long-term management strategy for the fire, which it has completed and will hand over to the Type 3 team. Those teams are made up of 10-20 people representing different disciplines who manage complex incidents for extended periods.

The Type 3 team will “carry on the same things we have꿌t’s right-sizing the fire management,” Casey said. “If it starts making big runs and the wind starts changing?.they’ll ramp it back up. A large organization can roll in,” he said.

Early this week 188 people were assigned to the fire. Casey said that number will decrease when the new team takes over. A fire camp has been set up at the Rhythm and Blues Festival grounds just outside Winthrop.

The Diamond Creek Fire, which began July 22, is expected to continue burning until there is what fire managers call a “season-ending event” such as a wetting rain or snow.

“You’re playing the long game,” Casey said.

Conditions ripe for fire

Conditions were ripe for the Diamond Creek Fire, which is determined to be human-caused. There has not been a wetting rain —defined as one-tenth of an inch or more — for more than 50 days, and temperatures have been 3-5 degrees hotter than normal for this time of year, Jon Fox, incident meteorologist, explained at a community meeting last Thursday (Aug. 3).

That weather helped produce extremely volatile fuel conditions, said Todd Gregory, fire behavior analyst. Log-sized wood in the fire area measured at 6 percent moisture. “Anything below 12 percent is critical,” Gregory said.

Small branches and twigs are at about 2 percent moisture, he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 2 percent.”

The fire is burning in “very unforgiving country” that is not conducive to trying to fight the fire from the ground, Gregory said. “There are a lot of spot fires,” he said. “We’ve seen spotting one-half mile away.”

The long-term weather outlook for the region is for continued warmer and drier than normal condition into the fall, Fox said.

Eightmile Creek Road (#5130) is closed beyond Cub Creek junction at five miles, restricting vehicle access to Ruffled Grouse and Honeymoon campgrounds and Copper Glance and Billy Goat trailheads. Visitors are advised to check conditions before traveling in the area and to register at trailheads. The fire does not currently affect access to the Pacific Crest Trail or Pacific Northwest Trail.

Information about the Diamond Creek Fire can be found at www.inciweb.nwcg.gov or on the Diamond Creek Fire Facebook page.