Residents question 'big box' fire stragegy

— The “big box” strategy of fighting the Bridge Creek Fire was called into question Aug. 16 during a community meeting at Inchelium School.

The fire is burning 13 miles north-northeast of Keller.

About 90 people attended the meeting called by tribal and firefighting officials.

“It was a good question, commonly asked by community members and often by firefighters themselves,” fire officials said.

“The firing operation has begun on the Bridge Creek Fire. As the fire grows, firefighters are beginning to burn out the fuels between the fire and the fire breaks they have created,” said fire officials. “This will eventually require the use of aerial ignition, but for now it is being done by hand around the edges of the ‘box’ – the ring of fire lines that have been constructed over the last six days.”

The burnout operation was close to Bridge Creek Road last night, yet the road was clear from smoke because the fire and smoke were pulling in toward the main fire. Flames were low over most of the area with a few single trees torching occasionally.

Crews reported that the fire burned actively throughout the night.

The firing operation around the edges of the box will continue today, Aug. 17, and may produce increased smoke.

“This was discussed at last night’s well-attended community meeting in Inchelium, and almost everyone seemed to agree that a burnout operation that is done slowly with minimum loss of trees is preferred,” fire officials said. “The goal is to create a wide buffer of area where the ground fuels have been burned, but the larger trees remain. This will stop the forward progress of the fire as it pushes to the ridge-tops.”

Some people at the meeting were concerned about the strategy of constructing the big box around the fire, rather than putting it out where it is.

“Everyone in the firefighting community agrees that it would be best to stop the fire right where it is under ideal conditions,” according to fire managers. “In this case several options were actively pursued which would have resulted in a smaller fire size than the current strategy will.

“Each option, however, was ultimately ruled out because of firefighter safety.”

Bulldozer operators might be able to ride down a steep slope to create a fire line, but then there would be no way to get the bulldozer back up the hill. Or an old road across a steep slope could be opened to try to stop the fire, but the steepness of the slope would cause the fire to spot easily across the road, resulting at best in wasted effort and at worst in placing firefighters in jeopardy.

“It has proven more effective to anticipate the movement of the fire, get out in front of it, and construct well-placed and reinforced fire breaks that serve as a ‘catcher’s mitt’ for the fire,” officials said. “Thus a 1,000-acre fire may grow to 6,000 acres, for instance, but it does not become a 100,000-acre fire.

“Also, if the burning operation to reinforce the lines is done well, the resulting fire is less damaging to the forest than would be an uncontrolled wild fire.”

The lightning-caused fire is 22 percent contained and had burned across 1,343 acres as of Thursday morning. So far, 454 people are assigned to the fire. Resources include 10 line crews, 20 engines, six bulldozers, 14 water tenders, three skidgins, seven feller/bunchers, two skidders, five masticators, one light helicopter and two medium helicopters.

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