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Trailhead Fire Threatens Stanley

by Steve Benson
Idaho Mountain Express, August 25, 2006

Re-ignited blaze explodes through beetle-killed pine

Stanley is buried under a layer of smoke, and homes outside the city limits could be evacuated.

The Trailhead Fire re-ignited Tuesday and rapidly charged through thousands of acres of tinder-dry, beetle-killed pine trees on Wednesday and Thursday.

"I don't know if this is the big one we've been waiting for but it's right in line to town and it was pretty spooky watching it yesterday and last night," Stanley resident Lynne Stone said Thursday morning. "It looks like it's only a couple miles from town."

Ed Waldapfel, spokesman for the Sawtooth National Forest, said the fire was estimated at 3,000 acres Wednesday night. But the exact size and position of the aggressive blaze remained unknown Thursday as heavy smoke and windy conditions kept air reconnaissance teams grounded, he said.

By early Thursday morning, the thick smoke had crept into the Wood River Valley.

The Custer County Sheriff's Office evacuated campgrounds around Stanley Lake on Thursday and residents in Iron, Job and Crooked creeks were put on notice that evacuations could be necessary. There are about 50 homes in the area, Waldapfel said.

Fire crews filtered into the area Wednesday night and a Type 1 incident management team, the highest authority, assumed command of the fire Thursday afternoon.

The Trailhead Fire, suspected to be human-caused, was first reported July 19 about 10 miles southwest of Stanley on the western edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. It was declared controlled July 31 after burning 1,040 acres.

"The area where the Trailhead Fire had been burning was very rugged, steep terrain with a lot of scattered fuel," Waldapfel said. "There was still some fire squirreling around in the area, but it was very minimal fire activity."

On Tuesday, high winds and continued hot, extremely dry weather - relative humidity was a staggeringly low 3 percent in Stanley earlier this week - caused the dormant fire to flare up and jump the three-week-old containment lines.

With numerous fires in the area - a total of 18 blazes were burning in Idaho on Thursday, the highest figure in the country - the Trailhead Fire was being observed via daily reconnaissance flights.

On Tuesday, one such flight observed a small area engulfed in flames outside the containment lines.

"They saw it was very small and they sent some people in," Waldapfel said.

But the four-person team was ordered to turn around before it reached the fire, which quickly exploded to about 70 acres and was burning very aggressively, Waldapfel said.

"It was too dangerous for anyone to be in there," he said.

"In 30 minutes it went from a whiff to a conflagration," Stone said. "All of a sudden it was like 'Whoo.' Everybody in town was standing in the street looking towards Sawtooth Lake. By nightfall we could see flames and trees burning from Stanley."

Much of the eastern slope of the Sawtooth Mountains west of Stanley is engulfed by red, extremely dry lodgepole pine killed by mountain pine beetles. For the past few years, the flammability of the dead trees has fueled fears of a massive fire.

Last year, the Valley Road Fire, the largest blaze on record in the Sawtooth National Forest, consumed 40,800 acres after being sparked on private property Sept. 3. But it burned on the eastern edge of the Sawtooth Valley in the White Clouds Mountains, an area that was not nearly as exposed to the beetle epidemic.

Over 1,000 firefighters directed by a Type 1 incident management team - it was the first time a team of that stature had been required in the Sawtooth National Forest - and an early snowstorm helped contain the blaze Sept. 10, 2005. The threat for a larger blaze on the western side of the valley loomed.

"Back in 2003, we developed a wildland fire evacuation response plan for the Stanley Basin and Sawtooth Valley," Waldapfel said. "We are definitely prepared for this and we have evacuation plans in place."

The Potato Fire, burning nine miles northeast of Stanley, was 90 percent contained at 18,454 acres on Thursday. Containment is expected by 6 p.m. today.

Steve Benson
Trailhead Fire Threatens Stanley
Idaho Mountain Express, August 25, 2006

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