August 1, 2008

Fire Crews Begin Mop-Up Phase Near Mt. Adams

By Philip Ferolito

TROUT LAKE -- Amid towering pines scorched black by the Cold Springs Fire just southeast of Mount Adams, dozens of firefighters overturn and extinguish smoldering embers.

Still more crews arduously work to pull the nearly 50 miles of fire hose that was used to combat the blaze that blackened nearly 7,800 acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and on the Yakama reservation.

Although most the excitement of the fire that closed roads and campgrounds has passed with its near containment, grunt work now begins as crews move into full-scale mop-up to assure that it doesn't flare up again.

Fire officials expect mop-up operations of the lightning-caused blaze that was reported July 12 to continue into September. Ten- hour days are the norm for the more than 200 firefighters who are living out of tents at an elementary school in town while mop-up is ongoing.

It's an important phase of combating wildfires, but one that mostly goes unnoticed by the general public.

So far, it has cost more than $9.4 million and more than 914,000 gallons of water to battle the blaze.

Digging out hot spots

Trekking up a dusty northward path cut by bulldozers, one sees scorched subalpine fir and lodgepole stands line both sides of the makeshift road. In other areas, slash piles -- some nearly 20 feet tall -- left behind by timber harvests to eradicate bug kill continue to smolder.

"There's a lot of wood in them, so they're just going to keep burning," says Task Force Leader Charles McCarthy of Winthrop, Wash.

White shoots of bear grass begin to sprout from the black carpet the blaze left beneath the trees.

Ash hangs in the air as the soot-laden grit that eclipse lips and teeth usher the smell and taste of burn.

"This is where the real work starts, that's for sure," McCarthy says.

Just yards away, a small crew of firefighters overturn smoldering debris in spread-out slash piles. A bulldozer's blade digs down about four feet, and lifts and turns smoldering bug-killed timber.

A firefighter mixes the debris with a hoe while another douses it with a water hose that stretches from a 250-gallon water truck.

"By breaking it up, we're able to get water on it," says Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighter Jeff Moyer. "Usually you can see smoke coming up, and we're just trying to find the brush that's still burning underneath and pull it up."

Snags can be hazard

But there's more to the job than just putting out hot spots, says BIA firefighter Tommy Kieffer.

There are many snags -- trees with burned trunks that are ready to fall -- to contend with. There are also trees that are burned up higher and could break off and endanger workers below.

While McCarthy and Kieffer comb through the remains of the fire to extinguish hot spots, they also watch for such snags and alert fellow crewmen and the sawyers who will later come in and remove potential problem trees.

"If something is burned halfway through, you want to watch out for that," he says while pointing to a large tree with smoke billowing from its trunk. "We're just kind of the eyes and ears for them."

Moments later, the bulldozer weaves through the charred timber to the smoking tree, and digs around the bottom of it before finally pushing it over.

There appear to be more snags here than what firefighters normally see, Kieffer said.

"Bigger timber, a lot more hazardous," he says. "You're a little more cautious over here."

Fire hose retrieval

Farther west, a crew of roughly a dozen spend most of the day retrieving the miles of fire hose.

A pile of neatly folded hoses sits near the dirt road that leads north to Bench Lake.

Firefighters wipe sweat from their foreheads while loading the hoses onto a large stake-bed truck.

"That's a lot of spaghetti," says fire spokeswoman Alexis West.

Today, crews will begin assessing the area to clean culverts and replant vegetation to strengthen soils and creek banks to prevent erosion.

"Later, a long-term strat- egy will be initiated to restore the area and see how it will regenerate," says Mount Adams Ranger District spokesman Chris Strebig.

Meanwhile, most roads, trailheads and campsites in the area remain closed.

If things go well, the main trailhead to Mount Adams -- the South Climb -- could be opened this week, he says.

"Then, we'll probably just issue a closure that will keep the public from fire crews," he says, noting that it's important that the public stays out of fire-charred areas.

"A lot of trees will continue to fall, I'm sure, in that area."

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 577-7749 or [email protected]

Fire facts

Fire size: 7,729 acres blackened.

Peak number of firefighters: 1,128.

Current number of firefighters: 234.

Peak equipment use: helicopters, 7;engines, 37; water tenders, 24; bulldozers, 17; nearly 50 miles of fire hose.

Current equipment use: helicopters, 2; engines, 7; water tenders, 4; bulldozers, 1.

Gallons of water used so far: 914,737.

Gallons of fire retardant: 86,594.

Cost of battling the blaze so far: $9,432,795.


Gifford Pinchot National Forest -- Campgrounds: Cold Springs, Morrison, Mount Adams, Horse Camp. Roads: FS 80, 82, 8040 east of the 23 at forest boundary. Trails: Stagman, Ridge, Salt Creek, Buck Creek, Cold Springs, Crofton Ridge, Morrison, Snipes Mountain.

State Department of Natural Resources campground closures: Bird Creek, Island.

Yakama Nation campground closures: Bird Creek, Mirror and Bench lakes.

Long after crews douse a wildfire's flames, there's a lot more grunt work to do in the smoldering forest

Phil Ferolito

Yakima Herald-Republic

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