Crews brace for 50mph winds in fight against giant blaze near Pocatello

Doug Lindley, Idaho State Journal

Crews brace for 50mph winds in fight against giant blaze near Pocatello

By Staff, Idaho State Journal | Posted - Aug. 7, 2017 at 4:10 p.m.



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POCATELLO — Monday ended with more good news than bad regarding the giant wildfire raging near Pocatello.

Perhaps the best news is firefighters reported that they have 25 percent of the blaze contained. Much of the success on Monday came on the fire's northern sector where firefighters have continued to contain the fire in the Michaud Creek Road area — keeping it from entering the Trail Creek Road area directly adjacent to Pocatello, reported the Idaho State Journal.

Firefighters also fought the central portion of the fire on Monday to the west and southwest of Pocatello, winning the battle there too in part because the fire is having a difficult time getting through the higher elevation juniper trees and pinyon pine trees in that area.

The human-caused fire is still about four miles from Pocatello's western border but the blaze made no gains toward the city on Monday.

Fire officials also pointed out that there were no evacuations on Monday and residents who had been evacuated earlier from Arbon Valley Highway were allowed to return to their homes. Arbon Valley Highway is expected to be reopened to the public on Tuesday morning after being closed since the fire ignited near the road west of Pocatello on Friday.

Despite burning tens of thousands of acres, the blaze has thus far resulted in no injuries to people and no houses have been damaged or destroyed.

The bad news Monday morning was that the National Weather Service had escalated its severe weather forecast to the most extreme wildfire threat level possible — a red flag warning. Firefighters braced Monday for lightning from dry thunderstorms and winds of up to 40 mph that could ignite new wildfires or cause the large one burning near Pocatello to spread exponentially.

Although there were multiple small lightning-caused fires that had to be extinguished Monday in the wildfire area near the Gate City, the weather did not prove to be much of an obstacle for firefighters.

One bit of bad news is that the cooling off that was expected to occur in the Pocatello area for the remainder of the week is no longer in the forecast. Daytime high temperatures in the Pocatello area are expected to continue rising this week and could eventually reach 90 degrees by the weekend.

Another bit of bad news is that the fire grew from about 46,000 acres Sunday night to 52,014 acres Monday night, with the vast majority of that growth happening on the blaze's southern end in the area of the eastern Power County village of Pauline about 20 miles southwest of Pocatello.

The National Weather Service still has an air quality alert in place for Pocatello and Chubbuck because the fire has caused the air in both communities to become unhealthy to breathe. Residents in both cities are being advised to stay indoors as much as possible until the fire's out.

Fighting the fire on Monday were over 400 firefighters backed up by 23 fire trucks and seven bulldozers. Air support was provided by seven helicopters. The Bureau of Land Management says that so far firefighting aircraft have dropped over 160,000 gallons of retardant on the fire.

Fire officials will hold a community meeting to discuss the fire with the public starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Arbon Elementary School, 405 Arbon Valley Highway.

Monday's successes against the wildfire were much needed considering what had happened previously.

Sunday saw the fire grow in size by more than 50 percent, cause more evacuations and advance in the direction of Pocatello.

Most of the fire's growth on Sunday was on its southern end, where firefighters had to evacuate Pauline. But authorities said some of Pauline's residents refused to leave and are still in their homes.

Also evacuated Sunday were campers along the south fork of Mink Creek in Bannock County and some residents in the Michaud Creek Road area.

The blaze began its attempt to push through the Michaud Creek Road area on Sunday but firefighters successfully halted the flames there on Sunday and Monday.

About 20 houses were threatened by the fire on Sunday but firefighters successfully prevented the flames from reaching any of them.

The fire did spread Sunday morning to just west of Kinport Peak, crossing the Power County line into Bannock County for the first time since the blaze started Friday night.

If the fire spread eastward through the Kinport Peak area it would reach Pocatello.

But the Pocatello Fire Department said the fire is not currently threatening the city, though residents should pay close attention to the volatile blaze because of its close proximity.

Since igniting in rural eastern Power County west of Pocatello the fire has destroyed multiple outbuildings but firefighters have thus far successfully protected all of the houses in the fire's path.

The wildfire has caused ash to fall from the sky like snowflakes on the Pocatello area on multiple occasions. And until the wildfire is extinguished the smokey air and intermittent falling ash are expected to continue.

The fire saw its biggest gain in size thus far on Saturday.

Over 140 firefighters and several tanker planes battled the fire relentlessly Saturday but by the end of the day the blaze fueled by high winds and dry terrain had exploded in size from 3,000 acres Saturday morning to about 30,000 acres by early Saturday evening.

The wildfire has not resulted in any injuries to people thus far, though an ambulance and police were called to Ramsey Road Sunday afternoon along the fire's northern sector after someone reportedly bit a person's finger during an altercation. Details on the incident have not been released but it's believed the biter and the victim were both adults.

The fire ignited around 8:20 p.m. Friday off Arbon Valley Highway near Ramsey Road on Fort Hall Indian Reservation land less than 10 miles west of Pocatello. On Saturday the blaze spread quickly to the south and then southeast — bypassing Pocatello. The flames were approaching the Bannock County line on Saturday night about 15 miles southwest of the Gate City.

On Sunday morning the fire changed direction and began spreading northeastward and eastward — toward Pocatello and crossing into Bannock County. The fire also pushed to the south Sunday into the Pauline area because that's the direction the wind was blowing.

The BLM says the fire has destroyed six outbuildings so far. Multiple houses have been evacuated but no specifics on the number of displaced residents have been provided by fire officials.

Flames from the fire are up to 40 feet high and strong winds — especially Saturday — have pushed the blaze through the dry grass, sage brush and juniper trees in its path.

On Saturday morning, when the fire was only 3,000 acres in size, fire officials estimated the blaze would be contained by Saturday night. But Saturday ended up seeing the fire explode in size tenfold and since then fire officials have not provided any containment time estimates.

A new command team made up of federal and state fire experts was put in charge of the firefighting effort on Monday morning — an indication of the seriousness authorities are viewing the out-of-control fire.

The BLM reports that the fire was human caused and remains under investigation but no further information has been released.

The fire generated so much smoke Saturday afternoon that people thought a second wildfire had ignited to the south of Pocatello on Scout Mountain. But fire officials said the massive amount of smoke people were reporting was actually from the huge blaze burning to the west and southwest of the Gate City.

Michaud Creek Road, Mink Creek Road, Trail Creek Road and other nearby roads have been shut down because of the fire and the BLM said individuals who disregard the warnings and travel on these thoroughfares are putting their lives at risk.

Authorities reported problems Sunday with people visiting the fire scene to view the blaze and some motorists are even driving past law enforcement road blocks to get a closer look.

The fire is extremely volatile and is frequently jumping across roads, so people should without a doubt stay way, authorities said.

Firefighters from Fort Hall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BLM, U.S. Forest Service, Chubbuck, American Falls, Pocatello, Pocatello Valley and Inkom have been battling the fire since it started and received lots of federal reinforcements on Sunday and Monday.

The Journal has received reports that the firefighters battling the blaze are in need of basic supplies. But the BLM said the supply needs of all the firefighters are being met. There are, however, independent efforts by local businesses and residents to gather supplies for the firefighters — specifically the non-BLM firefighters. The BLM said it's awesome that the local community wants to gather supplies for the firefighters but the BLM doesn't feel that those supplies are needed.

However, the supply collection efforts by these local businesses and residents are continuing because of a strong feeling among organizers that there is a supply shortage. The BLM is encouraging people to instead donate to the Red Cross or the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

The Pocatello Fire Department reported Sunday from the fire scene that it is experiencing no supply shortages but it has already received a lot of donations from the community. Those supplies will be donated to local homeless shelters and the Idaho Foodbank so they don't go to waste, Pocatello firefighters said.

One way people can help the firefighting effort is to not fly any drones near the blaze.

The BLM has issued a warning to residents to keep all drones grounded because drones in the air could interfere with the firefighting aircraft that are trying to extinguish the flames.

The BLM stated: "Remember wildland fire aircraft fly low and fast. Drones pose a serious threat to pilots' safety. Flying drones or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) near a wildfire is illegal. Drones can shut down air operations. If you fly, we can’t!"

The fire destroyed several power lines and poles in the Arbon Valley Highway area and numerous homes were without electricity as a result.

Authorities said power company crews were on the scene repairing the damage on Monday and power was restored to everyone in what was one final bit of good news for the day.

Staff

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