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By Andi Bourne

A Fortnight of Flames: A Rice Ridge Fire Timeline


August 10, 2017

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

A CL-215 Super Scooper skims the top of Seeley Lake picking up 1,500 gallons of water to drop on the fire. These Canadian aircraft have been working on the Rice Ridge Fire for a week, providing a show for locals.

SEELEY LAKE - "My thinking is that the next big event will be east of Seeley," wrote retired Plum Creek Forester Roger Marshall in an interview July 6, 2017 about the 2007 Jocko Lakes Fire. "Auggie Creek to Cottonwood Lakes and all that area back to Pyramid has some real potential to make a large fire quickly. If the wind is just right, a serious run into Seeley could be possible, maybe devastating."

Marshall's comments were made 18 days prior to the start of the Rice Ridge Fire. As of press time the fire burned 8,209 acres and thus far has resulted in evacuation warnings for 600 homes.

Monday, July 24: The Rice Ridge Fire was reported at 4:30 p.m. on the west side of Florence Lake and three miles northeast of Seeley Lake. Multiple air resources responded dropping water and retardant to slow the fire's progress. It grew to 15 acres.

It started less than a half-mile from the three-acre Florence Lake Fire that burned the week before.

Wednesday, July 26: A Type 3 Incident Management Team from Arizona led by Incident Commander Andrew Mandell took command of the 20-acre fire. There were two crews, five engines and approximately 75 firefighters plus overhead assigned to the fire.

Based on a risk assessment and probability of success aligned with the risk to the community, the Team was unwilling to put firefighters directly on the fire because of large area that was riddled with dead, standing trees, snags.

"We didn't have the resources to do anything else," said Seeley Lake District Ranger Rachel Feigley. "Even if they would have brought in heavy equipment they needed firefighters on the ground to follow that up to put the fire out."

Fire suppression efforts focused on preventing the fire from burning towards homes and communities to the west and south, and on point protection for Forest Service infrastructure.

Thursday, July 27: The fire grew to 60 acres with zero percent containment. Retardant and water drops checked the fire and gave managers time to strategize. Heavy equipment established an anchor point on the southwest flank of the fire. The fire was predicted to move to the northeast with the prevailing southwest winds.

"The fatality that we recently had was on my mind but it was not what drove the decision," said Feigley. "The decision [to not put firefighters directly on the fire] was a combination of the fire models we looked at, the risk exposure to the firefighters and whether we could do anything in there safely that would be successful and worth the cost and the risk."

Friday, July 28 - Saturday, July 29: Fire remained at 60 acres with zero percent containment.

Sunday, July 30: Due to a high pressure system creating hotter, drier conditions with increased winds, the fire chewed its way through the retardant lines down the east slope of Rice Ridge. Contrary to the prediction, the winds pushed it southeast, a two percent probability of occurrence predicted by the models for the end of July. The fire quickly burned over the anchor point.

"It was a combination of factors that over the course of two to three days that we were all the sudden in a situation that we had to back off," said Feigley. "The most important of which was we are not going to put our firefighters at risk where we don't think we are going to be successful."

Monday, July 31: The fire grew south and east to 1,100 acres by morning. While no evacuation warnings or orders were in place, the community was told at the Monday evening meeting that if the fire reached Seeley Creek, the Team would have the evacuation discussion with law enforcement.

Wind out of the east, high temperatures and low relative humidity kept the fire burning through the night. Since the fire was established in the Morrell Creek drainage, it was pushed down the drainage by the local, diurnal flow of air at night.

Tuesday, Aug. 1: The fire grew nearly 2,000 acres by Tuesday morning and was within two miles of the Cottonwood Lakes Road and four miles of Highway 83.

Evacuation warnings were issued to residents on both sides of Highway 83 south of Rice Ridge Road to Morrell Creek and south of Cottonwood Lakes Road east of Highway 83. The warning was extended to all of Seeley Lake and the Double Arrow Ranch east of Highway 83. In the afternoon, the lake was closed to recreationists so aerial fire operations could use it for water.

"Winds will blow through the night, so all residents in the Seeley Lake area should be ready with an evacuation plan," read the morning update.

Wednesday, Aug. 2: The Rice Ridge Fire rose to the number one priority fire in the nation. It was up to 6,875 acres and remained zero percent contained. Aerial resources continued to hit the fire with retardant and water targeting hot spots and pushing the fire to the east. There were five crews, five engines, several pieces of heavy equipment and approximately 150 personnel on the fire.

Thursday, Aug. 3: The Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Command Team led by Incident Commander Steve Goldman assumed command of the fire. The same team managed the Morrell Complex Fire near Seeley in 2015.

Friday, Aug. 4-Monday, Aug. 7: Lower winds and increased relative humidity resulted in decreased fire activity. Aerial resources and crews minimized fire growth by direct suppression on the active flame fronts.

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

A fire crew coming off the line heads in to get their hot dinner after a long day.

Heavy equipment constructed indirect lines. Thinning operations along existing roads helped make them more defensible should they need to be used as a control line or for burnout operations.

Structure protection, including thinning around structures, installing sprinklers and staging large water tanks called 'pumpkins,' was done along Highway 83, the Morrell/Cottonwood Lakes Road and in areas on the north end of the Seeley Lake including the Double Arrow Ranch. The team said there is 20 miles of hose and more than 50 portable pumps being used for firelines and structure protection.

Tuesday, Aug. 8: The Rice Ridge Fire is 8,423 acres and 10 percent contained. There were 461 personnel working the fire and the fire remains the number one priority in the nation. As of yet, no evacuation orders have been given.


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