Fire at Idaho’s nuclear research facility burns 90,000 acres in 24 hours

The Sheep Fire is about 24 miles northwest of Idaho Falls

Sheep Fire Idaho
Firefighters burning out along a road on the Sheep Fire. Photo by BLM Air Attack Dan Zajanc.

(UPDATED at 6:37 p.m. MDT July 24, 2019)

Firefighters are making progress on the Sheep Fire 24 miles northwest of Idaho Falls, Idaho. The fire is on land administered by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), an agency within the Department of Energy. (scroll down to see a map)

At a briefing Wednesday the fire chief said containment has increased to the point where they expect to release 5 of the 17 engine crews later in the day.  He said no “buildings” have burned but some “power structures” were damaged. A backfiring operation was executed on the south side of the fire Wednesday night. About 105 personnel are assigned to the fire.

Wednesday the size of the fire was estimated at 110,000 acres, an increase of 20,000 acres from Tuesday.

Firefighters were challenged Wednesday by strong winds. A weather station in Idaho Falls recorded sustained winds at 20 to 25 mph with gusts above 35 along with a high of 90 degrees and relative humidity in the teens. The forecast for Thursday at the fire area is about the same, except with much diminished winds — 12 mph with gusts to 21 in the afternoon.

Officials at the INL said Wednesday that there has been no release of radiation due to the fire.

Most of the workers at the INL were evacuated from the lab facilities, but there appears to be a good chance they will be allowed to return to work on Thursday.

Photos and videos of the fire, including videos of air tanker drops filmed from overhead by Air Attack, can be found here.

The photo below is interesting.

Smoke column Sheep Fire
Smoke column over the Sheep Fire in Idaho. Photo by BLM Incident Commander Kris Bruington.

In the video below of a briefing about the fire, the Fire Chief describes the status of the blaze beginning at 7:30.


(Originally published at 6:17 p.m. MDT July 23, 2019)

Sheep Fire INL smoke fire
A smoke column over the Sheep Fire in Eastern Idaho Tuesday morning. BLM photo.

The Sheep Fire on property managed by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has burned approximately 90,000 acres in the first 24 hours. The facility about 24 miles northwest of Idaho Falls conducts nuclear research. (see the map below)

All non-essential employees were evacuated from several facilities at the lab: Central Facilities Area, Advanced Test Reactor Complex, Naval Reactors Facility, Radioactive Waste Management Complex, and Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.

INL Site facilities are preparing for the anticipated loss of commercial power and are switching to on-site backups per existing emergency procedures.

Lava Fire Sheep Fire
Map showing the location of the Lava and Sheep Fires in Idaho. Data from 2:26 p.m. MDT July 23, 2019. Much of the fire is burning in light fuels that consumes quickly and may cool before the next heat-detecting satellite overflight. Therefore the fires may be larger than they appear on the map.

Radiation monitoring is ongoing, and based on current information there is no risk to the public, according to information released by the INL.

The Sheep Fire started at about 6:30 p.m. Monday from a lightning strike, and later that night other fires were started by lightning in the area. It is being managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is burning between Highways 20 and 33.

Sheep Fire INL smoke fire
The Sheep Fire northwest of Idaho Falls, ID. Photo provided by the Idaho National Laboratory.

The weather forecast for the fire area until dark on Tuesday predicts 16 mph winds gusting to 24 out of the southwest, 25 percent relative humidity, and temperatures around 90. Wednesday should bring winds out of the southwest at 24 mph gusting to 35, 88 degrees, and relative humidity of 18 percent.

Another fire in Idaho, the Lava Fire, has burned 800 acres north of Shoshone. (see the map above)

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill and Al. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Firefighters on the Sheep Fire incorporate train into their suppression tactics

The Sheep Fire, burning near the BNSF railroad tracks just south of Essex, Montana, has caused the intermittent closure of the tracks to Amtrak and BNSF trains. Since it is in the best interests of the railroad and the firefighters to suppress the fire as quickly as possible, BNSF is cooperating in various ways, including transporting fire personnel in a caboose car and using a crane and flat cars to remove slash from a shaded fuel break being constructed by feller-bunchers.

The Sheep Fire, part of the Thompson-Divide Complex, has burned about 2,100 acres on the Flathead National Forest.

Below is a video showing the feller-bunchers in action, and after that is a slide show of photos taken by Jonathan Moor of the Information organization on the fire. Mr. Moor also shot the video.

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