A particularly large fire that burned about 1,500 acres in the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area and numerous other fires started by controlled burns that went out-of-control due to changing winds kept the all-volunteer crew of the Big Horn County Fire District No. 1 busy all weekend.
Eight consecutive calls came in starting at around 10 a.m. on Saturday through around 7 p.m. that evening, spreading the department’s resources thin, as firefighters were dispatched to areas throughout the north end of the county. Firemen were able to put out most of the fires fairly quickly with the exception of the wildlife habitat area, which burned through Monday.
According to Captain Bob Mangus, the habitat fire (officially named the Big Fork Fire) began as a controlled agricultural burn at the north end of Road 15 on Saturday morning that was sent out of control when the winds kicked up around midday and caused it to jump from the south side of the Shoshone River to the north side of the river, igniting not only private land but a considerable amount of state and federal land, causing the fire to enter the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat area.
“When we first got there only about an acre had burned and it had just started to spread to the BLM land,” explained Mangus. “They (the farmers) did everything right. They had a disc going all the away around their property, it just got across their fire line and onto that BLM property that was about four foot thick. It was so thick with brush you couldn’t even walk through it. Then that wind took off and we just couldn’t catch it.
“We called the BLM immediately to let them know, but they were about an hour away from helping us. The Forest Service arrived and attempted a couple of back burns, but that didn’t work either. The wind was blowing in every direction that day. It was a pretty hot and pretty intense fire.”
“The fire involved really intense swirling winds and it was difficult to determine which way it was going to move,” added Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn. “It reminded me of the fires of ‘88. These firemen were facing walls of flames 20 feet high.”
The North Big Horn Search and Rescue team was called to assist, spot, locate and help evaluate the danger to individuals and structures in the area.
“Everybody responded,” said Blackburn. “It was a whole community effort to contain this fire.”
“We knew with the 70 degree weather coming on that Saturday and the fact that nobody has been able to really burn up until then that we’d get hit on Saturday, but we were just not planning on anything quite like this,” said Mangus.
Since the fire was on federal and state land, interagency teams of approximately 30 firefighters arrived, bringing with them bulldozers and other equipment to help keep the fire under control.
“Chief Minchow was the incident commander,” explained Blackburn. “He did a fantastic job, considering his resources were spread about as thin as they could be.”
Ultimately, no structures were damaged, however a considerable amount of irrigation equipment was lost in the fire, including a large quantity of plastic pipe.
As the crews fought the unusually large fire, calls came in throughout the day for other smaller fires that blackened trees and burned haystacks, wood piles, a camper, a flatbed trailer, manure and even an old cow.
Eventually crews from Worland and Cody came to help. According to Mangus, about 50 people were there to assist his 29-member crew by the end of the day.
“You hear around town that people are saying the farmers did something wrong,” said Mangus. “That’s just not true. They did everything right. Like out of a textbook. They cut a line around their property and it was not blowing when they started to burn. Then that wind came up out of the south and made it jump their line. Just like it jumped the river, it jumped their disc line. They did everything right, they called it in, they called us immediately.”
“Agricultural burns are an accepted practice,” added Blackburn. “I think we really need to focus on the excellent job the volunteers did to help with this situation, which is not uncommon.”
“They did a great job,” said Mangus. “At one point we had one of the youngest crews we have in one of the hottest spots and they did great.”
Blackburn added, “Some of the newer members of the crew got a literal baptism by fire and they all handled it very well.”
Blackburn said the fire continues to be under investigation, but he knew of no charges pending at press time.
By Patti Carpenter