Mule Forest Fire 2002
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The summer of 2002 presented me with an opportunity to observe the Mule Fire in Sublette County, Wyoming, from start to finish. The area burned by the Mule Fire was on the north side of North Horse Creek about fifteen miles west of the Fort Bonneville marker for the Mountain Man Rendezvous of 1833, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1839, and 1840. As a fur trade historian, it was important to me this area not be destroyed by fire. Despite disgust and anger at the way the fire was initially handled by local forest service personnel, the experience gave me a greater appreciation of the problems involved.
The fire was started by a lightning strike which smoldered for several days. The first smoke was on July 11, 2002.
Three days later the Mule Fire blew up.
The next morning, Roby McNeel, the son of the owner of the cattle on Spring Creek, and I was at the head of the canyon at daylight to roundup and bring out the cattle. Fireballs from the crown fire had crossed over Mill Creek to the head of Spring Creek, which is well over a mile from the crown fire area. These fireballs set several small areas on fire.
This stump was burning until Roby answered a call of nature and put out the flame. With a disgusted look, he turned and said, "That's more than the forest service has done."
These fireball-started fires did not spread because the fireballs lit in areas of green plants with high moisture content. The moisture content of the trees, plants, and soil play a key role in the severity of forest fires, as is shown by this green area around an elk wallow.
As we reached the mouth of Spring Creek with the cattle, a Type II Incident Management Team arrived from the North Carolina Forest Service. The Incident Team assumed complete control of the Mule Fire. Besides the fifty people on the management team, there were at various times, crews from Idaho, New York, Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. In addition to these people, there were emergency medical teams from Rock Springs, Wyoming, local firemen and law enforcement officers, and forest service personnel from Utah, Sublette County, and Jackson, Wyoming.
The Mule Fire ranked 43rd on the National Priority List of Fires because no structures were endangered. Despite the majority of these crews coming from areas near sea level to an elevation from 7500 to over 9000 feet, the fire was attacked as if it was the number one fire on the list. Within hours after the North Carolina management team arrived, my feeling was this fire would be contained. I cannot speak for all fires, or fire personnel, but on the Mule Fire, it amazed me how hard the crews worked under difficult conditions and terrain.
Excerpts from a press release prepared on July 23rd by Teresa Odom, information officer, of the North Carolina Forest Service gives a typical day’s activity. The inserted pictures were not part of the press release.
On July 25th the fire was 100% contained, and on July 29th a type III Incident Team took over the restoration work and to monitor the burned areas. At this point, the fire had burned 3,982 acres at a cost of $4,395,866 dollars.
The management team and fire personnel were able to confine the Mule Fire to the south-facing slopes, instead of the heavier timbered north-facing slopes, and the fire did not burn hot enough to sterilize the ground. Due to their efforts, next year there will be re-growth of grasses and bushes on the fire-fertilized ground...I was wrong on this. I rode back up to the strip clear cut area a year later, and there was little new growth.
The Mule Fire did as little overall damage as could possibly be hoped for. The worst burned area was not far from where the night fire picture was taken.
There are three major reasons for the Mule Fire being contained within small areas: (1) Incidents Teams management skills in directing the fire, along with the hard work and dedication of the fire personnel involved, (2) this area was heavily logged by the tie-hackers (for railroad ties) in the nineteen-thirties, so in many areas there was not a build up of downfall from old growth timber, (3) logging with strip clear-cuts was permitted in this area by the Bridger-Teton Forest Service into the mid-nineties.
The Incident Command System (ICS):
Percentage breakdown of fire costs:
At this altitude (~8000 feet) the smaller Huey could carry 250 gallons and the super Huey 400 gallons of water, whereas at sea level, they can carry several thousand gallons.
Maximum number on fire line 449
The large Huey cost $18,000 dollars a day to standby, while flight time ranged from $1800 to $3000 dollars an hour...this sounds extremely expensive, but helicopters are the most effective means of controlling and directing a fire.
I would like to thank the following forest service personnel for providing information on the 2002 Mule Forest Fire.
North Carolina Forest Service
Bridger-Teton National Forest
The replies, pro and con, to the forest fire article give various perspectives on forests fires, and are well worth reading. These replies are at the bottom of the Forest Mismanagement Page.
The Mule Fire article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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