Twenty-five years ago this month, the Canyon Creek fire roared out of the Scapegoat Wilderness after slowly burning unfettered for more than three months, deep within the mountains, under part of the so-called “let it burn” U.S. Forest Service policy.

Eventually, the Canyon Creek fire burned across more than one-quarter of a million acres, forced the deployment of shelters by more than 100 firefighters and threatened the town of Augusta.

The local firestorm of criticism over the Forest Service’s handling of the Canyon Creek fire lasted even longer than the conflagration. But valuable lessons were learned, and this summer, as the Red Shale fire was allowed to burn relatively unchecked through the wilderness, it did so with little fanfare.

Brad McBratney, the fire staff officer for the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests, and Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz smile at questions about various firefighting tactics used by the Forest Service, well aware that the public typically has a limited understanding of how decisions are made as to whether to try to extinguish wildfires in wilderness areas or let them burn. They pull out two yellowed documents from the early 1980s, which foresters have used in the ensuing decades to put policies into practice on the ground, and half a dozen maps showing how fires have shaped the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex landscape since then.

“In 32 years, we have seen some significant fire activity on the landscape,” Munoz said.

“There’s lots of different terminology at times, but we always take some types of management to prevent fires from getting out of hand,” McBratney said. “But Mother Nature always bats last.”

The legendary fires

In his book “The Sleeping Giant Awakens,” fire behavioral specialist Sonny Stiger writes that all future fire seasons will be judged against 1988. “For me, the 1988 fire season started with a call from the dispatcher to help monitor a prescription fire near Gates Park.”

The Canyon Creek fire was sparked by lightning on June 25 in the Bob Marshall Complex and smoldered until mid-July. That fire was followed in July by the lightning-caused Gates Park fire, which was north of the Canyon Creek blaze.

The wilderness management plan called for letting lightning-caused fire to be treated as “prescribed natural fires,” and they didn’t draw much attention initially. Fire is part of the natural ecosystem in wilderness areas, so the plan calls for monitoring them to benefit the resource by removing dead trees and underbrush. The blazes also were deep enough in the wilderness that they weren’t threatening any private property.

Also, the eyes of the nation in 1988 were focused on the blazes in Yellowstone National Park, where 9,000 firefighters were battling what eventually was an 800,000-acre fire. The nation feared the iconic national park would be reduced to ashes, especially after a news release coined the “let it burn” phrase.

Stiger writes that at first, the Gates Park fire and the Canyon Creek fire were being managed and monitored by as few as eight people.

As July headed into August, the Gates Park fire was becoming active, with 50- to 60-foot flame lengths being reported. A trail crew and wilderness guards stayed with Stiger at the Gates Park Guard Station, monitoring what was going on.

Meanwhile, fire management officers developed a plan for the Canyon Creek fire that separated the Bob into topographical units. If flames crossed to the east side of the Continental Divide, Stiger said they were to revisit the plan. That happened on Aug. 9, 1988. Stiger recommended they treat it as a new fire and put it out.

“They elected to let it run its course,” Stiger said. “It was my feeling that was a dreadful mistake.

“But the feeling at the time was that all the resources were tied up in Yellowstone and elsewhere, and we had no resources to put it out. That was a big part of the decision-making criteria.”

Firefighting resources also were called south of Helena to the Warm Springs Creek fire, which started in mid-August in the Elkhorn Mountains and eventually burned 14 houses and outbuildings across 47,000 acres. Stiger said there were so many uncontrolled large fires and new starts that it was becoming “nearly impossible” for the Helena Interagency Dispatch Center to keep track of them.

By late August, the Gates Park fire had burned more than 33 square miles. The Canyon Creek fire had pushed outside the wilderness boundary, and was at 51,200 acres by September.

While August typically signaled the end of the fire season, both blazes continued to grow. More resources were brought in to help, and by Sept. 5, Stiger said more than 1,500 engines, aircraft and crews were battling the blazes.

Then, on Sept. 6, the surface jet stream blew through the Canyon Creek fire. Typically, jet streams are narrow air currents that move quickly through the Earth’s atmosphere, with speeds hovering around 100 mph, but they can drop to the surface.

The fire made a legendary run, fueled by the surface jet stream. In 18 hours, between Sept. 6 and 7, the Canyon Creek fire consumed more than 180,000 acres.

“That’s 180 acres per minute for almost 18 hours,” said McBratney, who was a range technician in 1988 on the Rocky Mountain Front. “It was something we had never experienced before or since then.”

Stiger recalls that the Canyon Creek fire raced into the prairie for 15 miles, taking direct aim at Augusta and overrunning five crews in the fire camp. Lacking escape routes, “these 107 firefighters were forced into their fire shelters as winds howled around them at 40 to 70 miles per hour,” Stiger wrote in his book. They survived unharmed. The flames came within six miles of Augusta.

That wasn’t the only deployment of fire shelters.

A handful of firefighters also deployed their shelters when ashes rained down on them in the Smith Creek drainage. They also weren’t hurt.

Then, on Sept. 9, two men and 20 California firefighters on Table Mountain were trapped by 35-to-50-foot flames. Bill Evensen, an earthmoving contractor, used a bulldozer to clear a 120-by-180-foot area and push up a berm. While all survived, eight or nine men were burned by embers when winds sucked up their shelters, according to a report in the Independent Record. They all were able to walk away from the scene.

Two days later, the heavens opened and the rain poured down, effectively ending the 1988 fire season.

‘Real turning point’

A Forest Service review of the Canyon Creek fire and blowup released in 1989 didn’t fault the decision to let the fire burn throughout the summer months. It noted that other fires had drained away key firefighting personnel and equipment, and that could have thwarted suppression efforts.

The report noted a lack of communication among the Forest Service and other agencies, as well as local residents, to the point that they developed an adversarial relationship, which “resulted in a serious lack of confidence in the Forest Service.”

It also cited a lack of advance warning of impending extreme fire conditions in the form of long-range weather forecasts as contributing to the fire’s growth. The report stated that even when high-wind predictions were made days in advance, they weren’t adequately communicated to the fire teams.

Also included as factors were ill-defined and poorly developed policies for monitoring and managing naturally caused prescribed burns, lack of identification of defensible lines within prescribed burn area boundaries and a lack of formal expanded dispatch services.

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McBratney calls 1988 a “real turning point” in wildfire management.

“Folks in my position at that time said fires don’t spread among even-age lodgepoles, but it does,” McBratney said. “It wasn’t supposed to do that, so our frame of reference has changed. What we had seen and experienced showed us how we could do a better job.”

The Lewis and Clark National Forest officials still follow the 1980 fire management plans — trying to allow naturally caused fires to burn when risks to the public is low and trying to extinguish those that are man made — but firefighters and managers now have better resources available.

McBratney and Munoz point toward this summer’s Red Shale fire as a textbook example of fire management, even though it is still burning after being started by lightning on July 18, about 35 miles west of Choteau. The fire has spread over 12,380 acres in a typical mosaic pattern, burning trees in one area but leaving others standing. Most of the burned area is within the footprint of the Gates Park fire, which ended up totaling about 52,000 acres.

They do more up-front planning, which includes examining various long-term scenarios. They get daily briefings on weather. More resources are in place — both people and equipment — if it’s needed. They map using satellites and infra-red radars. The develop models on where the fire is expected to burn and revisit those models regularly to tweak them.

Public information officers posted daily updates on a fire’s size, location and the number of resources assigned to it in Choteau and Augusta. There’s even an “app” that allows cell phones to scan it and go directly to the online “InciWeb,” a national incident management website that posts fire information, to learn more about the Red Shale fire.

Even if they’re not actively trying to extinguish the flames, they still use helicopters to drop water to cool the blaze and try to direct it away from some areas. They’ve wrapped historic cabins with fire-resistant materials and installed sprinklers as protective measures.

At the height of the Red Shale fire, about 25 people were assigned to it, including about 10 people on the ground. Today, four people are watching the fire, which is mainly smoldering after recent rains and cooler fall temperatures.

Today, after 100-plus fires in the Bob Marshall Complex have burned hundreds of thousands of acres since 1980, there’s less fuel to add to the fires. Munoz points to the Red Shale fire map, which shows how it burned to the edge of the 2001 Biggs Flat fire, then stopped without human intervention.

In addition to the natural fires within the wilderness area, forest officials have used prescribed burns to remove fuels outside the boundaries, with the hope that will make it easier to catch a fire that makes a run toward private property.

They’ve also worked on building relationships with local and state firefighters. McBratney is a member of the Augusta volunteer fire department, and Stiger said that during the recent fire season local volunteers meet weekly with state and federal representatives to talk about potential issues.

“There’s a world of difference,” Stiger said. “We have improved 200 percent with our relationships with federal firefighters.”

Fire managers also are more wary about where they put crews and resources for safety reasons. But McBratney, Munoz and Stiger all point to this year’s Yarnell fire in Arizona, where 19 firefighters died after deploying their shelters and being overrun by flames, as proof that tragic accidents still can happen.

Yet even with all that they’ve learned, Munoz adds that during bad fire seasons, when the relative humidity can drop to the single digits and high winds along the Front can whip flames into a frenzy, nature will continue to create difficult situations for wilderness managers. It was only six years ago that the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex experienced an exceptionally active fire year, which included the 52,500-acre Ahorn fire and the 60,000-acre Fool Creek fire.

“We thought we had roped in Ahorn and were attempting to put it out,” Munoz said. “But with the winds and the slopes’ alignments, it was all over. Then, we almost lost people when a helicopter crashed. It cost $17 million to put out the Ahorn fire. We spent $4 million on Fools Creek.

“Sometimes, there has to be the simple recognition that a fire will do what it wants to do.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com. Follow on Twitter @IR_EveByron.

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