Powerline Fire near Pocatello should be 100 percent contained by Friday night

Shelbie Harris/Idaho State Journal Operations Chief for Great Basin Team 6 Brian Cresto, left, stands with Fire Behavioral Analyst Nick Yturri in front of a map showing the size of the Powerline Fire.

Shelbie Harris/Idaho State Journal
Operations Chief for Great Basin Team 6 Brian Cresto, left, stands with Fire Behavioral Analyst Nick Yturri in front of a map showing the size of the Powerline Fire.

By Shelbie Harris, sharris@journalnet.com

The hundreds of firefighters who have been batting the large Powerline Fire west and southwest of Pocatello are close to winning the war against the blaze and expect to have the flames 100 percent contained by Friday evening.

As of Thursday morning, the fire was 85 percent contained, which resulted in some of the firefighters being redeployed to battle the Pole Creek Fire in western Wyoming.

“Nothing is set in stone, but the tentative plan is to release (the Powerline Fire) back to the local Type III units on Sunday morning,” said Brian Cresto, operations chief for Great Basin Team 6, the command team overseeing the firefighting effort. “Some remaining groups are tasked with fire suppression repair out of the 100 miles of dozer line out there, which will take some time.”

Cresto said some additional units will also remain at the scene in case any new fire starts were to appear.

Parts of the Pocatello area received heavy rains on Tuesday, which was something Cresto said both aided efforts to control the blaze but also made some control efforts more difficult in certain areas.

“The rains definitely helped down in the lower country with the quick and flashy fuels because it doesn’t take a lot of rain to put fires out on dry grassland,” Cresto said. “But when we got up into the forest where it hung up in some of those aspens, the fire was somewhat creeping around looking for something to burn. The rain knocks the flames down but it doesn’t remove the heat.”

When the rains hit some of the more wooded areas with aspens and junipers, it extinguished top flames but it also prevented any burning logs or other materials from smoking. This makes it more difficult for firefighters to pinpoint any remaining hot spots.

Cresto credited the initial attack team for fighting the blaze through multiple shifts, adding that when Great Basin Team 6 arrived they were able to plug guys into understaffed areas, which prevented the fire from spreading more than it already had.

By Wednesday, the fire spread to 57,151 acres. However, the perimeter was under control at that point, allowing fire crews to shift efforts to interior hot spots.

As the much-anticipated rain fell on Tuesday, several members of Great Basin Team 6, along with representatives with the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and local Power County emergency responders, hosted a community meeting at Arbon Elementary School.

There, Great Basin Team 6 Fire Behavior Analyst Nick Yturri provided local citizens with an explanation of how the fire spread so quickly, as well as why so much smoke filled the Pocatello valley.

“One of the important things to look at is going back and looking at the fire history within this area,” Yturri said during the meeting. “What happens when we get fire occurrence in this area is we get better cheatgrass. Throw on top of it a monumental snowfall in a lot of areas, we end up with a fire fuel advisory.”

What a fuel advisory indicates is a watch-out for fuel loading in the area and the dryness of the fuels, Yturri added.

“With the snowfall, we ended up with about 200 to 300 percent of normal fuel loading,” Yturri said. “This has been going on all summer. That’s how we got to this point.”

Yturri also provided residents with an explanation as to why so much smoke filled the valley, adding that not all of the smoke was from local fires.

Using satellite imagery, Yturri showed many fires burning in lower British Columbia in Canada.

“What’s happening is we have a big low-pressure system sitting off the ridgeline up in Alaska that is sitting there spinning,” Yturri said. “We have another (low-pressure system) sitting off the Southern California coastline.”

These low-pressure systems create a vortex that funnels smoke from fires burning in British Columbia, as well as some in Montana and the lower Rocky Mountains, directly into the state of Idaho.

“This isn’t cloud coverage, this is all smoke,” Yturri said as he pointed to large grey smoke clouds displayed by the overhead projector. “Is the smoke all bad? Not necessarily. It actually helped keep the radiant heat off the (Powerline) fire.”

Officials have said the Powerline Fire, which has been burning since last Friday, was human-caused, but investigators are still trying to determine exactly how it started.

Power County Sheriff Jim Jeffries encourages anyone with any information about how the fire started to contact either his office or the BLM.