RIGGINS The Rattlesnake Creek Fire IMT (incident management team) took station last week and found a lack of connectivity limited the flow of information to the interested public. Some Pollock residents have described phone service outages, and even the team’s effort to spread information door-to-door left some Pollock-area residents unaware of a public meeting until the last minute Friday night, July 28, at Salmon River High School.
“We have a long trapline on this one,” spokeswoman Jennifer Costich told the Free Press after the IMT presented information on the firefighting effort and contingency plans. “I mean, we’re going to New Meadows and I have two people going to Riggins…and I have two other people doing face-to-face with affected landowners along the river. That’s a full day for four people.”
She told the Free Press connectivity was rapidly improving, and she told one Pollock resident concerned about his neighborhood that her people would be delivering daily information directly to them.
Worst-case appears averted
While locals have long worried about the area where the Rattlesnake Creek Fire now burns because several cycles without fire have contributed to a big buildup in the understory, the worst-case for the Pollock area appears to have been averted.
Contingency plans are nevertheless in place, and those whose homes are under the fire’s threat were urged to monitor the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. A “Be Set” pre-evacuation notice issued by ICSO last week remains in effect for residents in north Pollock, Whitewater Wilderness Ranch and Pinehurst.
One of the main concerns the IMT voiced Friday night was for rapid drying-out of high-elevation fuels that had previously slowed the fire’s progress.
“It’s hot and dry, hot and dry,” IMT fire behavior analyst Steve Munson told the crowd. “That’s what we have and that’s what’s in the forecast. It has probably been at least four weeks, if not longer, since we’ve had any wetting rain. … There’s still a lot of wet areas, green areas out there really high up, 5,500-6,000 feet, and in the draws it’s still green. But I went out today – I go out every day – and it’s curing fast. … All that green stuff can get from being a barrier to fire to starting to contribute to it. That’s going to continue in open areas and add to the fire growth.”
Burnout operation successful
The fire area grew 481 acres to 3,287 from Friday to Monday, including what the IMT’s Inciweb entry described as successful burnout operations Saturday along the fire’s northwestern perimeter. (Find more at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5999.)
Inciweb is the information hub of the IMTs, and the IMTs are the backbone of the nationwide emergency response logistics. The IMTs coordinate efforts among units in the air and on the ground, and make dollars-and-cents decisions about what resources to bring in.
Nationwide mobilization maxes out
Fires elsewhere have hit many communities across the west much harder. With firefighting efforts under way not only in Idaho, but also in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Alaska – and with fatalities reported amid massive fires in California – the nationwide system reached its maximum mobilization last week. Fires are now burning in nine of the National Interagency Fire Center’s 10 geographic areas, NIFC noted in a Facebook post July 25.
“It’s earlier than it was last year,” Costich said of the move to Preparedness Level 5, or PL5.
This is the IMT’s second rotation of this fire season, having previously battled in Colorado. Attrition and fatigue aren’t yet a factor, Costich told the Free Press, but that “the Northern Rockies sometimes has a hard time standing up all their teams by September.”
Management decision frees resources
Earlier in the meeting, Deputy Incident Commander Shawn Pearson told the crowd at SRHS the Rattlesnake Creek Fire IMT was fortunate to have received the resources it has requested – and attributed that to good decision-making. Because the fire straddles a Forest Service regional boundary – Region 1 to the north, Region 4 to the south – management decision-making could have come from either direction. And fire season was already in full swing in Region 4.
“Really good decision by the Clear-Nez to basically say there’s nothing going on in the Northern Rockies right now, let’s manage this fire out of the Nez,” Pearson explained, “because we were able to be basically the only show in town. We put all of our resource orders in and it was all coming. … Within two days we had 13 crews. That’s unheard of. If we probably would have been working out of the other direction [the Region IV side] I’m not sure we would have had those 13 crews.”
The Carr and Ferguson fires in California have proven lethal, but the quick escalation of the response near Pollock appears to have prevented any loss of life or property here so far.
Pearson pointed out to the crowd that having a stout operation already in the area contributed to quick resolution of the Island Bar Fire, which threatened an area about five miles east of Riggins earlier Friday.
“We stopped our operations and sent [crews and helicopters] and our air attack platform that were working with our firefighters,” Pearson told the crowd Friday night. “If we would not have had the [crews and the aircraft] available off the Rattlesnake Fire, that fire just out of Riggins would have gotten big.”
Brian Harris of the Payette National Forest, where the Island Bar Fire is located, said Payette smokejumpers were among first units to respond.
Human-caused local fires remain under investigation
As of Tuesday morning, July 31, the Rattlesnake Creek Fire was listed as 3,789 acres in size and as being worked by 534 personnel, including 14 hand crews, 21 engines, 3 dozers, 9 water tenders and 4 helicopters. The Island Bar Fire, meanwhile, was held to 196 acres, and the earlier Blackerby Fire was checked at 26 acres.
Three prominent fires in the Idaho County Free Press coverage area – Blackerby (July 17), Rattlesnake Creek (July 23) and Island Bar (July 27) – remain under investigation and no further information has been publicly released. The firefighting cost of the Rattlesnake Creek Fire topped $4.6 million on July 30.
The combined forests are asking the public’s help to “encourage folks to be extremely careful while recreating on their National Forests,” Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests spokeswoman Jeannette Dreadfulwater said.
The forests also put out a press release noting that a July 23 drone intrusion temporarily halted aerial operations aimed at limiting the Rattlesnake Creek Fire. The release states that although this did not contribute to the growth of the fire, it had the potential to put firefighters and the public at risk.