Box Canyon Fire suppression effort is winding down | ParkRecord.com

Box Canyon Fire suppression effort is winding down

Nan Chalat Noaker
The Park Record

As of Tuesday, all but one of the pup tents in the field alongside Oakley's Town Hall had been dismantled. Firefighters have been camping there for the last two weeks while working to contain the Box Canyon Fire east of Smith Morehouse Reservoir. But according to the experts huddled around a conference room table strewn with maps, graphs, radios and computers on Monday evening, it was time to wind the operation down.

The human-caused fire was first reported near the Ledgefork campground on July 28 and due to hot dry weather, combined with lots of fallen trees and dense undergrowth, it advanced quickly.

As the fire spread from Erickson Basin to Hell's Kitchen, smoke filled the Kamas Valley and alarmed cabin owners in Weber Canyon. They were reassured, though, by U.S. Forest Service and National Weather Service experts who were leading the efforts to steer the fire away from any populated areas. In the meantime, recreation was limited in popular summer areas like Smith Morehouse Reservoir.

On Monday, a crew of about 75 wildland firefighters from the Northern Utah Regulars spent a full day monitoring the still smoldering fuels and lighting backfires to halt the flames from moving toward Anchor Lake, another popular summer spot in the Uinta/Wasatch/Cache National Forest. About 20 of those firefighters spent the night near the lake to ensure their efforts were working.

The others made their way down to Oakley for a late dinner under the stars. After a 14-hour day there wasn't much conversation as they dove into a heaping buffet of spaghetti, meatballs, chicken, salads and strawberry shortcake.

Jason Saavedra a firefighter from California spent most of Monday looking down on the fire from an 8,400 foot high ridge in the aptly named Hell's Kitchen area. From his post as a lookout he watched a process as old as time itself.

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"Fire has been around longer than we have," said Saavedra, who studied fire ecology in college. "This is a prime example of letting fire do what it is supposed to do."

A veteran of forest fires in Washington, California and now Utah, he said the forest will be healthier as a result.

That sentiment was echoed by Incident Commander Daren Turner who explained that burning off years worth of deadwood and old undergrowth will create more space for animals to move around and stimulate new growth to forage. But he cautioned the fire could still "make a run toward Anchor Lake."

"Fire likes to travel uphill but where it is so steep you can also have 'rolldown' (hot rocks, pieces of burning trees falling and rolling downhill)." He added, "This is a high complexity fire. It may get active again."

Still, on Monday night Turner and his team of experts were confident that they had a plan in place to block the fire with a "catcher's mitt" created by the weekend's burnout efforts. That, plus their on-scene meteorologist's assessment, suggested the fire will likely burn itself out within the containment area.

"The weather is the most influential factor, that along with wind speed and direction," said assistant incident commander John Platt. "A lot depends on what Mark tells us." That would be National Weather Service Incident Meteorologist Mark Struthwolf who occupies an important seat at the command center's table.

Struthwolf has spent the last two weeks applying his expertise in weather patterns to detailed topographic maps of the local terrain. He is one of 78 FEMA-certified incident meteorologists in the country trained to analyze how weather conditions will affect response efforts at disasters ranging from oil spills and train derailments to forest fires.

"Being here I can focus on the safety of the firefighters," he said.

As of Tuesday, plans were to continue reducing the number of personnel on the Box Canyon Fire that has hopscotched over 2,700 acres in the National Forest. But, of course, that depends on the weather.