Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wiggins Fork Fire

Vapor cloud from fire 7.25 as viewed from Horse Creek

View of the fire from 3 miles away 7.26
Every year I travel to Wiggins Fork / Double Cabin Campground, Wyoming to collect Petrified Wood and Limb casts. I have done this for 39 years. The Campground is at 8300 feet, and the agate casts form at about 9000 feet. The Petrified Wood is in the mountains at about 10,000 feet. All of these materials wash down the rivers and can be found in the river gravels.

Norton Point, morning of 7.26

This year my wife and I arrived on Monday, July 25th at Horse Creek Campground, ten miles north of Dubois, Wyoming. We had received a message that a small fire had started on Norton Point and that the Forest Service had recommended that everyone leave Double Cabin Campground.

Fires burning on Burn Creek and Fire Creek, east of Wiggins 7.26
On the previous Friday a storm had come through the area with lightening and started a small fire. On Friday it was still burning but not of much concern. On Saturday there was a strong wind, and the fire expanded and started to move. On Sunday the fire moved very quickly down the slope on Norton, jumped Wiggins Creek, and started up the other side.

Burning towards Frontier Creek 7.26
On Tuesday we drove up to Double Cabin and watched the fire all day from the far side of the meadow on Frontier Creek, opposite the fire which moved slowly down the slope against the wind toward the creek. I have never witnessed a forest fire before, and it was amazing to hear and see trees explode into flames as if they were bombed from a mysterious source.

Frontier Creek
The fire stopped at Frontier Creek and Norton Creek, but moved all the way up Wiggins Creek. It also traveled over the ridge and down into Caldwell Creek and was threatening Bug Creek. On Saturday, August 6th, the Forest Service and Fire Fighters held a public meeting where they explained that the fire had so far cost one million dollars but that no one had yet been injured by it. After a little more than a week of the fire burning, Double Cabin Campground was reopened, and we were able to spend four days there. Some of my pictures were taken at that time. On our last day there, August eleventh, the fire intensified and burned most of Caldwell Creek. The Forest Service said they expected the fire to continue until the first snow fall.

Listed below is a first-hand account from Tom Noe who was up Wiggins Creek on Sunday.

Fire intensifying near Elk Lake
 Late Saturday afternoon I was camped close to the Frontier Creek trailhead lying under the cap of my truck in the back and working a crossword puzzle. I looked east and saw what looked like a streamer of campfire smoke just across Frontier Creek, rising maybe 150 yards north and upslope of the ranger cabin. It was about 300 yards away from me. I knew there wasn’t any trail over there, and I couldn’t think of any reason why anybody would be camping there; it was dense forest and probably had lots of downed and dead trees. No place for hiking. And why would anybody be starting a campfire at that time of day anyhow? I decided to let Earl, the campground host, know about it. It took a few minutes to walk across the meadow, and when I got to Earl’s rig he was just coming out with binoculars. Somebody had notified him already and he’d just notified the rangers. I told him I didn’t think that was a campfire, and he looked and said, “No, it’s not, and it’s getting bigger.” He said it was probably a lightning strike from Friday night, when we had a storm with lots of lightning and wind. (The tenters next to me had all the stakes in one of their tents pulled up. The only thing keeping the tent down was them sleeping in it!) Earl said a tree had probably been hit then, and it finally got enough oxygen to start burning.
Early view of the fire

Fire approaching Frontier Creek
I walked back to my truck and took some photos over the next few hours. I saw three firefighters head across the creek at 8:30 and took a picture of them. Later, just about dark, one of the rangers drove around to my site and she explained that the fire was close to the wilderness area. If it had been in the wilderness area, letting it burn would be the policy, but it was in the national forest and the campground area had 300 people in it. The Wind River Backcountry Horsemen had a huge gathering, including over 100 horses, the biggest crowd ever in the campground area, and with human safety a concern they had decided to put the fire out. It was about half to 2/3 of an acre at that point. The three firefighters were going to fight it until midnight. Sunday morning a larger team would be coming in. They didn’t think they would need aerial support, but a helicopter at Yellowstone was standing by just in case. She was very confident that the fire would be out Sunday just using ground tactics. That was the plan.
The fire as the firefighters arrive

I went to sleep in the back of the truck and watched the orange glow from the fire as night fell. Whenever I woke up during the night the orange glow was coming up from the site of the fire. It didn’t seem to get much bigger overnight.

Frontier Creek
Sunday morning I checked with Earl again about current information. At first the valley was full of smoke but it cleared off and the sun was shining. He said all the trails were still open and the word was still that they would be putting the fire out. I could see three green Forest Service trucks close to the campground entrance but no personnel. I told him in that case I’d be heading up Wiggins Fork to look for petrified wood. He asked me how far I’d be going and I said not far. I wanted him to know where I was.
I waded Frontier Creek and then hiked across the point on the trail by the cabin, then up Wiggins Fork, so I had pretty much gone around the fire completely. It showed as a column of smoke rising with the wind taking it slowly east. Couldn’t see any flames. Occasionally, as I was hunting the Wiggins gravel terraces for wood, I noticed that the column of smoke was getting bigger, but I assumed that was because the day was heating up.

Monday morning

Norton Point
Norton Point
About 10, I looked south down the canyon and the fire had spread down to the western banks of Wiggins Fork. Flames were twice as high as the trees. Some trees exploded from the heat, and I was close enough that I could feel the heat flashes on my face. I decided that was too close, so I walked north. The fire seemed to be burning faster right next to the bank than it was across the upper slopes. I didn’t want to head back down that way while the fire was burning so fiercely, since the wind then was stronger from the west, and flames were blowing east over the creek. I thought that if the fire jumped the creek I’d be in real trouble, and about noon they did. They spread north a lot faster on the east bank of Wiggins than on the west bank. Through the afternoon I kept moving north as the fire came north. I’d watch it from the terraces in the middle of the river. It was impressive. That whole end of the canyon looked completely cut off, and I didn’t see how I was going to get back to the campground. I figured they’d have to send a helicopter for me, and I was glad Earl knew where I was. I didn’t think climbing the ridge back over to the Frontier drainage would be a good idea. I could break an ankle or something, and that would put me in a place where nobody knew where I was. I knew I could stay out all night if need be—I had rain gear and matches (not that I needed matches) and I could build a campfire from driftwood to stay warm and use water from the creek to drink. I’d only been planning to stay out until noon, so I didn’t have much clean water and only a little food. I didn’t want to drink from the creek unless I had to.

By early afternoon a helicopter was cruising around overhead every so often, but way high, looking at the expanding fire, not low enough to spot me. But I still waved my hat and my handkerchief on a stick to try and get their attention.

Later Sunday morning

From Frontier Creek Looking at Norton Point
Late in the afternoon a fishing party from Nebraska of five men, four horses and a dog was coming south along Wiggins. They’d abandoned the Wiggins Trail because it was blocked by fire, and entered the streambed south of me. So I was behind them, but I waved my handkerchief on a stick and caught somebody’s attention, then I went down to talk with them. I had met them several days earlier. Like me, they’d heard that the fire was under control, small, and supposed to be put out on Sunday, so they went out fishing as usual.

Norton Point
Mark, the leader, said they were going to head south in the middle of the creek, stay away from any falling trees along the bank, and make for the camping area. I told them I wasn’t going to do that. No way. I had been caught in the woods during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone, with fires burning all around me in a 40 mph wind, and I knew fire could do anything once it got started. The end of the canyon was full of smoke, and fire was burning on both sides. I told them if they wanted to try that it was fine, and if they got through to let somebody know where I was.

They left, and as they disappeared into the smoke there were trees bursting into flame on the bank by them. A little later the helicopter came racing straight up the canyon, quite a bit lower this time. I thought they finally might be looking for me, and I found out later they were, so I waved like a crazy man, but they didn’t see me. I was right in the middle of the creek on a gravel terrace, in plain view. But they seemed to be going about 80 mph.
Monday morning -- one mile away
 Then no more helicopter, and the fishermen had been gone for about 45 minutes, and the sun was heading behind the ridge, and I figured if I wanted to get back to my truck before dark I had to start south no matter what. It was cooling down and the fire was less severe by then. Smoke was still strong.

Norton Creek holding the fire from spreading west
So I headed into the fire area. Trees on the west side of the creek were bursting into flame every so often, and the fire on the other side seemed to be farther back in the trees but creating a lot of smoke. Some younger trees right next to the water and out on the terraces were fine, still green, but a lot of the driftwood on the gravel beds had burned and I was stepping over remnants of driftwood logs and trunks, smoking shadows of ash left on the rocks.

Trees Exploding
I found the place where the trail led around by the cabin—the way I’d come that morning—and it was burning, so I knew I’d have to go farther south. At one point I was wading across one of the streams and fell in, so that meant spending the night out wasn’t an option anymore. It was hard to keep my footing anytime I stepped in, and my ankles started swelling. My lips were sticking together and I figured that was dehydration. My legs were cramping, probably hypothermia. I kept telling myself, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Monday afternoon from 30 miles away

Trees Exploding
I got down across from the meadow south of the campground, picking my way carefully through the braided streams to avoid the deepest parts, but it was dusk by then and hard to tell the depth of the water. I left the wood and my backpack on the east bank, and figured I’d come back for them in the morning. When I reached shore I needed to get moving as fast as I could to my truck and get into some warm clothes. It was probably about half a mile. I stopped on the way to let Earl and the Nebraska fishermen know I was okay. It was dark when I reached the truck, so I changed as fast as I could, but my hands weren’t working right. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces, and my legs were still cramping, and my teeth were chattering. I had a quart of sun tea that was still warm from the day’s heat, so I drank all of that. I started the engine and sat in the cab until it got warm, but I didn’t feel any warmer. I wanted to get a fire started in my little camp stove and boil some water for tea, but I couldn’t use my hands for anything. With my coffee cup and a teabag I went miserably back across the meadow to the Nebraska fishermen to see if they could boil some water for me, and they invited me to stay for supper. I could barely talk. They had fresh elk ribs and chicken and corn on the cob. I couldn’t hold the corn on the cob in my hand. Finally I could feel my hands again and I had some food in me, so I felt pretty good, but I was exhausted and I kept staring off into space, picturing the scenes of that afternoon with the fires coming up the canyon toward me. We all sat around the campfire and watched the flames from the fire against the mountains, which by then was in the upper slopes on the east side of the valley. Nothing like a nice forest fire to pass the time.

Vapor cloud from fire on Caldwell Creek 8.11
Burnt area near Norton Creek 8.11
The next morning I made three trips back and forth to the place where I’d left my wood and gear. I didn’t want to risk falling in again. Getting in the water even for a minute left my legs cherry red. There was nothing much to do the rest of that day (Monday) except watch the fire, since all the trails but Frontier Creek were closed, so I said goodbye to the fishermen and got some advice from Earl on other places south along the river to look for wood, and that’s where I headed. The fire was just starting to spread north along Frontier Creek, so that meant it would eventually jump the creek and spread along the western side, where the campground was. The firefighters were trying to save the cabin and the campground, but otherwise letting the fire go. The Nebraska folks were hoping to stay, but I figured Frontier would be closed soon (and it was). They had plans to be at Double Cabin a week and didn’t have any other options set up. Depending on the wind, you were either getting a wonderful view of the huge column of smoke and trees bursting into orange flame, or you were in the middle of the smoke with watering eyes.

Caldwell Creek on the other side of the mountain
When the Forest Service decided to “let the fire burn,” I don’t know if that was just another way of saying they had lost control of it. Not that it made much difference at that point. One person who saw the firefighters come on Sunday morning said they didn’t seem to be in any rush. They were having coffee, chatting, not dashing over to the fire. I guess they were real confident they could put it out.

Caldwell Creek
Of course, they were telling everybody, “We’re putting it out and all the trails are open,” so they knew there were people on the trails. I wish they had sent somebody out on a horse to let me know. Earl knew right where I was and he told them. I wasn’t much more than a mile away at that point.
I haven’t heard of anybody getting injured by the fire, but I was pretty banged up and exhausted. At home in Indiana I finally got all the smoke smell washed out of my truck. I hear the campground is open again. I may go back next year just to see what it looks like. The last time I was there in 1992 all the trees were alive, so it looked a lot different when I got there this year, and next year will be something else again.


View up Caldwell Creek from road 6 miles to the south 8.11

A Forest Service map of the fire