Air attack on fire plays role in success

August 20, 2013 11:24 am

JOSEPH — Against all odds, the U.S. Forest Service is getting a handle on the Big Sheep 2 Fire in country that could have kept crews busy until fall.


Every year, the Imnaha and Snake river corridors are susceptible to large-scale fires in late summer due to steep terrain, cured grass, high temperatures and low humidity. In 2011, the Cactus Mountain Fire was stopped at 8,350 acres and last year’s Cache Creek Fire grew to 75,000 acres before it was contained. As of this morning, the Big Sheep 2 fire was 129 acres.

“The major contributing factors to the success of catching and containing this fire was early detection, availability of aerial resources, and a break in having excellent relative humidity recovery yesterday morning of 72 percent,” said Mark Moeller, assistant fire management officer for the Wallowa Fire Zone.

The fire, six miles south of Imnaha, was called in at 1 p.m. Sunday by the Sled Springs helicopter en route to a fire in Idaho. Finding the fire while still small, initial attack resources were able to play a significant role in fire suppression, a Forest Service release said.

Due to the steep, rugged, and somewhat inaccessible terrain, the fire is primarily being fought from the air, but hand crews and engines are supporting the air attack where access permits.

Single engine air tankers have become the best tool in the box for fighting canyon fires. They are small and agile unlike the air tankers of old, leftover World War II bombers that are too unwieldy for places like the Hells Canyon National Recreation area.

The air tankers were funded through Oregon State legislation passed in June through the Wildfire Protection Act. In July, funding was allocated for additional air resources statewide.

State fire managers have been working for several years to persuade legislatures to spend funding upfront for resources to keep fires small, save private lands, and reduce costs on project fires.

“Through a strong partnership and good working relationship with Oregon Department of Forestry, these aerial resources are available and help reduce firefighter exposure, reduce loss to natural resources, and reduce overall financial exposure. These SEATs are very versatile and have become key firefighting resources in this rough and inaccessible terrain,” said Moeller.

The release said, over many years, wildland firefighters in Oregon and Washington have created a system of highly mobile federal, state, tribal cooperator and contractor assets - firefighters, aircraft and equipment. Forest landowners and community members also play an integral role, contributing local knowledge, experience and equipment on all fires. Teamwork, partnerships and cooperation are essential in managing this fire.

“We have a lot of values at risk on this fire, such as all the private property in the Big Sheep Creek and Imnaha drainages. The potential for growth on this fire was extreme and we are very thankful for the amazing job of all the firefighters and aerial resources at containing this fire.” said Kris Stein, District Ranger for Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Acting Wallowa Valley District.