Reynolds Fire on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier NP

(UPDATE at 11:45 a.m. MT, July 26, 2015)

Skycrane helicopter Reynolds Fire

A Skycrane helicopter drops on the Reynolds Fire. Undated photo from InciWeb.

For the last two days, firefighters, aided by the weather, have been able to minimize any additional growth of the Reynolds Creek Fire burning in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.

On Saturday crews took advantage of cooler temperatures to build new fireline and reinforce other lines along the St. Mary River, and extinguished spot fires near the southwest edge of the fire. Firefighters began laying hose along firelines to assist with mopup from Rising Sun to the northeast end of the fire.

Fireline explosives will be used Sunday to build fireline in an avalanche chute containing heavy brush and downed logs. The sound of the blast will be audible in the town of St. Mary, and is expected in the early afternoon.

The explosive firefighters use is about 1¼ inches in diameter and 50 feet long; it looks like a long strand of sausage links. The rope-like material is filled with a gel-like PETN material that explodes at 22,000 feet per second after being ignited with one detonation cap. Since the material comes in 50-foot sections, it can be laid out as far as a crew wants to build fire line. It is stored on spools which allow it to be unrolled as firefighters walk over the desired location for the fireline.

The Incident Management Team, led by Incident Commander Greg Poncin, reports that the fire has burned 3,158 acres.

In addition to blowing things up, Sunday personnel on the fire will also continue direct attack supported by aircraft, and expect to be dropping snags and clearing debris near the Going-to-the-Sun Road.


(UPDATE at 9:21 a.m. MT, July 25, 2015)

The Reynolds Creek Fire not long after it started on July 21, 2015. Photo by park volunteer Pam Smith.

The Reynolds Creek Fire not long after it started on July 21, 2015. Photo by park volunteer Pam Smith.

The Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park has not spread a great deal over the last two days. More accurate mapping shows that it has burned about 3,100 acres. Examples of some of these more accurate maps are below. Click on them to see larger versions.

Reynolds Creek Fire map 3-d

3-D map of the Reynolds Creek Fire, 10 p.m. July 24, 2015.

Reynolds Creek Fire map

Map of the Reynolds Creek Fire, July 24, 2015. Map by IMT.

Reynolds Creek Fire map

Satellite image of the Reynolds Creek Fire, using false color to highlight the vegetation and the area burned. This is undated but it must have been around July 22 or 23.

(UPDATED at 3:40 p.m. MT, July 24, 2015)

More information has been made available by the Incident Management Team working on the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.

On Thursday an inversion over the fire kept it smoked in and fairly calm in the morning; however, by mid-day gusty, westerly winds fanned the fire, spurring some short crown runs and a small spot fire south of St. Mary River, near the southwest end of St. Mary Lake.

Meteorologists predict that Friday will bring continued gusty, west winds and low relative humidity, which could likely push the fire to the north and east. Those weather conditions could produce extreme fire behavior, including spot fires and fast-moving crown fire.

(UPDATED at 9:03 a.m. MT, July 24, 2015)

Reynolds Fire map

This is an estimated, unofficial, preliminary, rough map of the perimeter of the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park, looking northeast, July 23, 2015. The community of St Mary can be seen in the distance on Highway 89.

Not much additional information is available about the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park on Going-To-the-Sun-Road three air miles southwest of St Mary, Montana. The MODIS satellite has not detected much heat in the last 36 hours and the Park and the Type 3 Incident Management Team are not releasing much information as Greg Poncin’s Type 1 IMT transitions into the organization.

The time between teams is frequently a dark period, as the previous team does not want to step on the incoming team, which does not have much information since they are new to the scene. Theoretically there is no gap since they usually overlap for a day or so, but in actuality, there is, and it has sometimes led to safety issues out on the fireline.

In spite of the dark period, we were able to determine that the Reynolds Creek Fire has burned down near the shore of St Mary Lake in several places and has spread 7.5 miles to the northeast, in some places on both sides of Going-To-the-Sun-Road. The southwest edge of the fire has crossed to the southeast side of the drainage, but so far firefighters have been able to prevent it from becoming established on the very steep slopes on that side.

As it moves up into the higher elevations it tends to run out of fuel at 6,000 to 7,000 feet. However there is three miles of fairly continuous fuel between the northeastern edge of the fire and the community of St Mary on Highway 89.


(UPDATED at 5:19 p.m. MT, July 23, 2015)

Late in the day on Wednesday a spokesperson from Glacier National Park reported that the Reynolds Fire on the east side of the park on Going-to-the-Sun-Road had grown to 4,000 acres. They explained that due to windy conditions and extreme fire behavior, Wednesday’s suppression actions were limited to aerial water drops and some on-the-ground crew work.

One structure has burned in the fire, the historic Baring Creek Cabin. No other structures have burned and no injuries have been reported.

A Type 3 Incident Management Team has been running the fire, recently assisted by a Type 2 IMT. Greg Poncin’s Type 1 IMT will assume command of the fire at 10 p.m. Thursday.

Wednesday evening someone at Glacier National Park hosted two live broadcasts on Periscope. The way we understand this, is that it is all done on a smart phone. Live video from the phone is sent to the internet where it can be seen by others.

Below is a screen shot from one of the broadcasts.Periscope Glacier NP 7-23-2015

The first broadcast lasted about 10 minutes (the second was shorter) and showed live video of the fire as seen from several miles away. The unidentified host answered questions from viewers as they appeared on the screen. For wildland fire suppression this was a ground-breaking experiment that seemed to work well. The video only showed smoke from the fire and we never saw the person behind the male voice, but he did a good job of interacting with the viewers as they asked questions.

The broadcast was recorded and as of this morning, can still be viewed on Periscope.

Several evacuations in and around the St. Mary Visitor Center have been implemented as precautionary measures. Glacier County Sheriff’s Office and Blackfeet Law Enforcement have evacuated the west side of Lower St. Mary Lake and may continue with evacuations on the East shore of Lower St. Mary Lake. The townsite of St. Mary is being evaluated for possible evacuation. The National Park Service evacuated the employee housing area and administrative area Wednesday evening.

Several backpackers in the vicinity of the fire were located and found to be safe. Additional backpackers were located and will be escorted safely from the area. Park rangers and personnel will continue to search for backcountry hikers in the area to evacuate them and direct them to safety. 

On Wednesday several visitors were able to retrieve their vehicles that were left along the Going-to-the-Sun Road yesterday due to fire activity in the area. One vehicle was consumed by the fire.

(UPDATED at 6 p.m. MT, July 22, 2015)

map Reynolds Fire Glacier national park

Map showing heat detected on the Reynolds Creek Fire by a satellite at 3:08 p.m. MT, July 22, 2015. The red squares represent the most recent heat sources detected. The locations represented are usually accurate to within a mile or so.

A recent pass by the MODIS satellite detected some additional heat sources at the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park. The scattered detections could mean that either the fire is spotting far ahead and starting new spot fires, or the satellite is having trouble dealing with the steep terrain, cloud cover, or heavy smoke created by the fire.

Continue reading


Cabin Gulch Fire, east of Townsend, MT

(UPDATED at 10:26 a.m. MT, July 22, 2015)

The Cabin Gulch Fire that started Tuesday morning 13 miles east of Townsend, Montana grew quickly toward the northeast during the day and at last count had burned approximately 2,500 acres.

On Tuesday the firefighting resources working the fire included 3 helicopters, 6 single engine air tankers (SEATs), 4 Interagency Hot Shot crews, 3 20-person hand crews, and multiple engines.


Highway 20 is closed in the Deep Creek Canyon area.


(Originally published at 7:36 p.m. MT, July 21, 2015)

map Cabin Gulch Fire

Heat detected on the Cabin Gulch Fire by a satellite at at 2:30 p.m. MT, July 21, 2015.

The Cabin Gulch Fire was reported in the late morning on Tuesday and has quickly grown into a large fire topped by an impressive convection column of smoke. The fire is 13 miles east of Townsend, Montana and has forced the closure of Highway 12 and the evacuation of 45 properties.

Helena National Forest spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell says the fire has burned about 400 acres and is spreading from grass and brush into timbered areas.


Two people ordered to pay $9,450 for starting wildfire with exploding target

Two people have been ordered to pay $9,450 restitution for starting the Three Mile Fire nine miles east of Florence, Montana in August, 2014 that burned about 50 acres before firefighters extinguished it at a cost estimated at $94,000. Tristan C. Olson, 30, of Missoula and Caitlin E. Hoover, 28, of Stevensville, Montana agreed to the settlement in exchange for the felony charges being dropped. They will also have to follow specific conditions for three years, including abstaining from the consumption of alcohol and drugs or entering bars or casinos.

The fire started when an exploding target was detonated in a tree surrounded by waist-high cured grass.

Mountain lion cubs

Two mountain lion cubs that were rescued in the fire. Photo by Cory Rennaker, Bitterroot National Forest Helitack, USFS.

During the initial attack on the fire, Bitterroot National Forest firefighters rescued a pair of mountain lion cubs. The kittens, just a few weeks old, were taking shelter under a burning log. Firefighters called in a helicopter bucket drop to cool the log, and the kittens, wet from the 600 gallons of water, were rescued. They were adopted by the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium, and on September 23 made an appearance on David Letterman’s show along with Jack Hanna.

The two people being charged were busted at least in part by writing about their adventure on Facebook that amounted to a confession.

Exploding targets consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user create an explosive when shot by a high-velocity projectile. They have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years and have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen causing his death. The Missoulian reported that two years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away.


Controversy over bald eagle killed when firefighters cut down tree with a nest

Bald Eagle

File photo of bald eagle by Bill Gabbert, February 28, 2015.

Firefighters in Montana are in the middle of a controversy about an eaglet that apparently was killed when a tree containing a bald eagle nest was cut down. They were working to suppress a wildfire on an unnamed island in the Missouri River near Cascade, Montana south of Great Falls and said they had to cut down the tree because it was burning.

However local residents said the tree was not burning and warned the firefighters about the eagle nest which had been in the tree for more than a decade and most years was occupied by bald eagles.

If the residents are correct and the tree was not burning, it sounds like a condition that can sometimes afflict firefighters called “sport falling”. If the firefighters, employees of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, are right and the tree was on fire, then apparently they concluded that it was very important to cut down the tree with the bald eagle nest, even though it was on an island surrounded by the Missouri River.

More details are at the Great Falls Tribune.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.


Ron Wakimoto — three decades of fire science

Ron Wakimoto

Ron Wakimoto. University of Montana photo.

The Missoulian has an interesting article about a fire scientist that influenced wildland fire practices and policy over the last few decades.

Below is an excerpt:


Ron Wakimoto rearranged how we think about fire

Some fire scientists burn down hillsides. Some burn up whole fire policies.

Ron Wakimoto has done both, developing research that helps save the lives of firefighters and helps return fire to the woods after a half-century of fighting to keep it out. Last week, he wound up more than three decades of teaching fire science at the University of Montana’s School of Forestry.

“Ron has been a leader in terms of teaching, and we wanted the students to be able to hear from an elder,” said Colin Hardy, director of the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory, just before Wakimoto spoke to the annual Mike and Maybelle Hardy Lecture audience last Thursday. “He taught us we need to think about fire management, not just fire suppression. On the political and management side, it’s about air tankers and people on the ground and big iron – it’s a big show. But among fire managers today, Ron’s speaking to the choir.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t wear the green underwear,” Wakimoto joked about his presence as the academic in rooms full of U.S. Forest Service officials. “Policy and science rarely go together.”

Wakimoto got his initial introduction to fire studies from Harold Biswell at the University of California, Berkley. Biswell was a controversial figure then, picking up nicknames like “Dr. Burnwell” and “Harry the Torch” for his avocation of fire as a natural part of the landscape…”


Court rules in favor of the Forest Service over escaped prescribed fire

map of davis fire August 27 2010

The map of the Davis fire, an escaped prescribed fire in Montana, shows heat detected by satellites during the early morning on Aug. 27, 2010. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The U.S. Forest Service dodged a bullet recently when the agency received a very favorable ruling from a Federal court judge over a 2010 escaped prescribed fire in Montana. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The Plaintiff in the case was Kent Taylor, the landowner of a 146-acre parcel of which 142 acres burned, including some lodgepole pine.

Firefighters ignited the Davis 5 prescribed fire at 1 p.m on Wednesday, August 26, 2010 on the Helena National Forest 11 miles southeast of Lincoln and 28 miles northwest of Helena in Montana. By 2:00 p.m. strong winds became a problem and the fire moved into the tree canopy. All ignition ceased, but soon there was a spot fire which burned 20 acres in heavy mixed conifers. When all personnel left the fire at 10:00 p.m. to avoid the hazard of falling trees, the spot fire had been partially lined.

The next day, Thursday, additional personnel were on scene. They were completing the fireline and gridding for other spot fires when an undetected one took off at 1:00 p.m. which quickly transitioned to a crown fire. The prescribed fire was declared an escape at 1:15 p.m. and a Type 2 Incident Management Team was requested at 2:27 p.m. By nightfall the fire was estimated at over 1,600 acres on federal land and 450 acres on private lands involving multiple landowners. Approximately 22 structures were evacuated on Thursday afternoon and evening.

Both the court decision and the official USFS report on the escaped prescribed fire failed to consider the significance of the differences between a spot weather forecast issued the day before the prescribed fire and the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday, August 25 on the day of the burn, about 2 hours before the firefighters ignited the final test burn. In fact, the Judge’s decision does not mention the 10:43 a.m. forecast that predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast, a bad habit the NWS needs to break):


The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph.

Again, the judge’s written opinion does not mention the last spot weather forecast, which was issued the morning of the ignition.

Even though ignition on the prescribed fire did not begin until 1 p.m. the USFS Burn Boss planned to have the 100-acre project essentially mopped up by the end of the day, anticipating for the following day the winds predicted in the now obsolete forecast: “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”.

In light of this very favorable court ruling, Jamie Kralman, a USFS Regional Fuels Specialist for the California region, distributed the good news, saying in part:

…I could really see the mindfulness of the agency personnel involved demonstrating High Reliability Organization (HRO) principles in their planning and implementation.  All key personnel met or exceeded minimum qualifications, planning and implementation was by appropriate certified personnel, appropriate line officer involvement and approvals occurred, and The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide was followed in development of the Burn Plan.  The Court opinion also demonstrates support for use of The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide.

This legal outcome is clearly consistent with what we have been teaching  in Prescribed Fire courses, Burn Boss Refresher training, and in other venues in this region regarding lack of personal liability in our prescribed fire operations and that  “…strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies…” because the action involved ‘an element of choice’ and the action was taken ‘based on consideration of public policy’.