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Jackson Hole, WY News

Firefight and a turn in the weather snuff out Swinging Bridge Fire

Jackson Hole’s first threatening blaze of the year swept up and around a hillside toward homes.

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Swinging Bridge Fire

A plane drops fire retardant onto a hillside Sunday afternoon while battling the Swinging Bridge Fire on the east side of Highway 89 south of Jackson. Fire crews, helicopters and planes worked all afternoon into the night to control the fire.

The power was out and airplanes droned overhead Sunday afternoon as Maya Ferris started to realize something was amiss.

Maya, a Game Creek resident, had been lying in bed doing homework. A cop’s knock on the door, alerting her to an evacuation order, helped clarify the commotion: A wildfire had been sparked, and it was potentially headed her way.

“I called my parents and I was like, ‘What do I do?’” she said from her front porch the next day.

Swinging Bridge Fire

Maya Ferris, 15, was one of the many residents of the Henry’s Road, Squaw Creek, Game Creek and Porcupine Creek subdivisions that evacuated Sunday afternoon due to the Swinging Bridge Fire. Ferris was home alone when officials arrived at her door and told her she should evacuate. After calling her parents, she gathered some of their belongings and dog into the car and drove alone for the first time to a friend’s house in Melody Ranch.

Maya is 15 years old. She had driven with a learner’s permit, but never punched the gas without a chaperone in the passenger seat. Mom and dad, who were out fishing on the South Fork for the day, relayed liberating instructions from a Swan Valley boat ramp.

“We said, ‘Grab all the computers you can and get the dog,’” Sarah Ferris said. “You’re going to have to drive a car.”

Maya eagerly obliged. She troubleshot opening the garage door without power and herded the family’s Samoyed, Brahma, inside the family Land Rover. Then she took off. Cool as a cucumber, she did her first solo stint behind the wheel on roads shared by panicked homeowners who were speeding up and down to gather their pets, livestock and most beloved possessions.

Fortunately, the scramble was all for naught.

Swinging Bridge Fire

Halsey Hewson runs out of the truck to help guide it across Swinging Bridge toward the fire Sunday afternoon. The Swinging Bridge Fire burned about 102 acres of land on the east side of the Snake River near the bridge and Porcupine Creek.

Higher on the plateau splitting Game Creek and Porcupine Creek, firefighters Sunday evening were having success halting an advancing front of flames that quickly engulfed the sagebrush-strewn hillside rising above Swinging Bridge.

Initially, the blaze ran hard, pushed by stiff winds that helped it quickly consume fine, flashy fuels like sagebrush and grasses that grew uphill from the ignition point someplace lower by Henry’s Road.

Bridger-Teton National Forest firefighter Jacob Henrie had been at his Hoback Junction home hanging out with his 9-year-old son and getting ready to watch a movie when a text message alerted him to the new fire. The first report he heard was just 1.5 acres, but radio chatter soon made him aware that this was looking serious.

“I heard that they were ordering large air tankers,” Henrie said, “and I had a conversation with my son about the urgency of it, because it was our long weekend together.”

Swinging Bridge Fire

A helicopter drops water onto the southwest edge of the blaze Sunday afternoon while battling the Swinging Bridge Fire. The blaze began around 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon and burned into the night as crews worked to control it.

They made the call that dad should go to work. By 4:30 p.m., Henrie was at the scene and put in charge of the Alpha division of a wildfire that by day’s end grew to 102 acres. Working with three engines, a water tender, a structure protection specialist and a task force leader, the Alpha division greeted the flaming front atop the bench that’s subdivided into dozens of parcels.

The firefighting team along the higher, eastern flank of the fire had some help by the lay of the land: The flames, which reached 20 feet in the sage, were slowed by a cut hayfield once the sagebrush ran out.

“Mowed lawn, it helps,” Henrie said.

Still, the flames managed to spot even into the hayed field.

The strategy to hold back the fire’s advance included putting in a “blade line,” where an excavator plowed up a strip of earth. Immediately behind was an engine of wildland firefighters who extinguished flames that burned over the line and through retardant that had been dropped by a large air tanker.

Once the Alpha team members held the line along the fire’s eastern flank — nearest homes and a cellphone tower — they moved downhill to try to cut off its advance to the north.

Strategies differed on the lower-elevation, westernmost Zulu division, where the paved surface of Henry’s Road provided an existing firebreak. Engines worked to spray down flames and protect homes off to the south and north, near Porcupine and Squaw Creek.

Aerial assistance was a critical part of the recipe for stopping the Swinging Bridge Fire after several scary hours. Once it was clear the fire was running toward homes, Dave Wilkins, the North Zone assistant fire management officer for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, made the call to request help from above.

“You can see the red on one side, and black on the other,” Wilkins, the fire’s incident commander, said from the scene the next day. “That retardant slowed the fire progress down so it didn’t sweep and run into the homes.”

A large air tanker swooped over from Pocatello, Idaho, dropping a couple of big loads of retardant. A couple of single-engine air tankers and two helicopters dropping Snake River water supplemented the cause.

Though a clear-cut success, the firefight wasn’t perfect.

The blaze, for starters, grew exponentially, and initial suppression attempt when the burned area was just an estimated acre and a half proved unsuccessful.

At one point during the evening, one of the single-engine air tankers struck and severed the standing dead wires of a power line while flying low for a retardant drop. The strike could have been disastrous. The aircraft sustained only minor damage, and its pilot was able to land safely at Jackson Hole Airport, according to Bridger-Teton spokesman Evan Guzik. Because there was no substantial damage or injuries the National Transportation Safety Board isn’t getting involved, although the U.S. Forest Service’s regional aviation safety manager, Nikki Sandhoff, is reviewing the accident.

Swinging Bridge Wildfire

A plane slices through power lines Sunday as it drops a load of fire retardant on the northern edge of the Swinging Bridge Fire. The photographer who took this image said the plane seemed unaffected.

“This review will provide our aviation community with an opportunity to learn from the incident,” Sandhoff said in an emailed statement. “Our goal is always to operate as safely and efficiently as possible.”

For now the investigation into the cause of the Swinging Bridge Fire continues, and no information has been made available. Signs point toward a human cause: Its starting point was low on the hillside near Henry’s Road, and the blaze began on a day where the typical natural fire starter — lightning — was lacking.

Swinging Bridge Fire

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS station 6 and 7 workers, Maggie Stewart, Kevin Rauch-Lynch and Ben Thurston work Monday afternoon to contain the Swinging Bridge Fire on the east side of the Snake River near Swinging Bridge and Porcupine Creek that burned 102 acres of land Sunday.

The evacuation order that caused Maya Ferris to flee alone in her parents’ Land Rover displaced dozens of other residents for Sunday night. The Game Creek, Squaw Creek and Porcupine Creek subdivisions all got the “Go!” command via Teton County Emergency Management’s Nixle system. Almost all complied.

Less than 24 hours later most of the work that remained was “mopping up” — dousing smoldering vegetation and root wads that remained in the blackened fire scar, one smoke at a time.

Mother Nature finished the job.

The thin coat of snow that fell over the valley late Monday seemed to snuff out any lingering hot spots. No smoke was spotted on Tuesday. The Swinging Bridge Fire as of press time was considered 100% contained, and the firefighters who remained on scene were patrolling while simultaneously pulling hose lines and starting to rehab the land, Guzik said.

Swinging Bridge Fire

The 102 acres burned Sunday in the Swinging Bridge Fire can be seen east of Highway 89 south of Jackson. Crews worked all day Monday to keep it contained.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(1) comment

Jody Garland

All of us up here on the Game Creek/Squaw Creek plateau are so very grateful to all who worked to save us and our property. So many came to help, firefighters, sheriffs department, civilians with horse trailers to help evacuate animals, and those incredible aerial fire fighters whose flights and retardant drops were beyond anything I’ve ever seen. My deep respect for all these responders is beyond words. Thank you all.

Jody Garland

6805 Squaw Creek Rd.

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