Pole Creek burn runs wild. Just like in 2014

August 30, 2017 GMT

On a Tuesday in early June 2014 a Bridger-Teton National Forest-lit prescribed burn in the Wyoming Range grew out of its bounds with enough fury that it was declared a wildfire.

Federal firefighters repeated the mishap this summer, lighting the second prescribed burn turned runaway wildfire in three years in the same area.

The result is the Pole Creek Fire, a still-burning wildfire that has grown to over 3,000 acres and at its peak intensity commanded nearly 300 personnel.

“We know that we are taking risks by doing these spring burns,” Bridger-Teton Kemmerer District Ranger Adrienne Holcomb said, “and we know that sometimes these kinds of things can happen.”

It was “unfortunate,” she said, that conditions changed enough to lead to a wildfire that needed to be suppressed. The first time the Pole Creek prescribed burn threw embers outside the intended zone, July 14, firefighters were able to down the unwanted flames and even left behind a webcam monitoring what remained of the spot fire.

But the lack of hazard from leftover embers didn’t last.

“Again on Aug. 4,” Holcomb said, “the wind picked up, and it took off on us yet again.”

That latest unanticipated run three weeks ago is what grew into the Pole Creek Fire. It’s a somewhat remote wildfire located in an inventoried roadless area at the southernmost tip of the Bridger-Teton, about 30 miles north of Kemmerer and 20 miles east of LaBarge.

The controlled burn that led to the blaze was part of the Pole Creek Vegetation Management Project, a 6,500-acre plan that dates to 2010. The intent, Holcomb said, was to burn down conifer trees that are encroaching on and displacing aspen stands, with the goal of regenerating the broad-leafed trees — important habitat for mule deer and other wildlife.

Runaway controlled fires are a rarity for land managers. Although they are a routine, almost annual part of forest management, Bridger-Teton wildfire specialist Andy Norman could recall only three runaway burns in his decades with the forest. Two were the Pole Creek burns, and the third was a controlled burn that got out of control in the early 1990s in the Dry Cottonwood area up the Gros Ventre River drainage.

Following the 2014 Pole Creek Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, using regional personnel, put together a “facilitated learning analysis” that broke down the incident.

Adequate firefighter resources were lacking at the time, the analysis said, compelling the “burn boss” to elevate the incident to a wildfire that qualified for more boots on the ground. One factor in the decision was adjacent Bridger-Teton land that was about to be auctioned for logging: The fire’s threat to the sale was “of concern” to both Lincoln County commissioners and forest staff. A lack of recognition of a cold front forecast by the National Weather Service was identified as another factor in the runaway burn, but no single “clear cause” was identified.

Afterward, the Bridger-Teton opted to change some of its tactics during prescribed fires, Holcomb said, such as keeping more emergency resources on-site.

The same “facilitated learning analysis” will assess what went wrong this summer, and again the process will be headed by outside, regional Forest Service personnel to reduce bias.

The decision to suppress the Pole Creek Fire was likely easier to make this year, because the blaze grew more rapidly and threatened a number of resources, including state lands with saleable timber and sage grouse habitat. The 165 firefighters who remained on the fire Tuesday had contained the south end of the blaze, and are now turning their attention to the north end.

Because of the runaway blaze the Bridger-Teton is wrapping up the Pole Creek vegetation project earlier than anticipated. Burns planned for future years have been canceled.

“It definitely expedited it,” Holcomb said. “We did not intend to do so many acres all in the same year.”