YNP: New incident management team will tackle Maple Fire as it grows, becomes more complex

By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor

WEST YELLOWSTONE – On Aug. 22, more than 300 people gathered at the Union Pacific Dining Hall in West Yellowstone to voice concerns and obtain information about a handful of fires burning in Yellowstone National Park.

Officials in attendance included YNP Fire Management Officer John Cataldo, YNP Superintendant Dan Wenk, Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Bobby Sutton, the current division chief of the Maple Fire.

As of the Monday evening meeting, the transition from a Type 3 Incident Management Team to a Type 2 team was expected to take place within the next 36 hours. The new team will take over management of fires near the west entrance to the park, including the Maple Fire, which has been generating plenty of concern–and smoke–the past several days.

“[A Type 2 management team] provides that next level of expertise and experience fighting this fire,” said Sen. Daines, adding that it would increase access to air resources and give decision-makers more pull in their management actions.

He echoed other fire personnel that the highest priorities are to protect lives and structures in West Yellowstone.

“We want to make sure our tourism economy is not affected adversely,” he added.

Fueled by dry air and southwesterly winds gusting to 30 mph, the Maple Fire—the largest fire currently burning in the park—grew by more than 4,500 acres on Aug. 22. As of the evening of Aug. 23, it’s pushing 30,000 acres.

Cataldo said they’re flying over the fire every night with an infrared camera to obtain up-to-date information on the fire’s size and location.

Recently, most of Maple Fire’s growth has occurred on its eastern edge, but Cataldo said it’s getting hung up on a sparsely-vegetated plateau as it nears Madison Junction. It’s less than 3 miles from that junction, which is frequented by park visitors traveling between Old Faithful and the West Yellowstone entrance.

The southern and western edges of the Maple Fire are generating much of the community’s concern due to values at risk there: the fire’s southern flank is currently burning within 1/10 of a mile of Highway 191, and its western edge is approximately 4 miles from the West Yellowstone entrance station.

Rapid growth to the west would take an easterly wind—a relatively uncommon occurrence in this region.

Nonetheless, some growth on that edge of the fire is to be expected, and Cataldo said fire managers have set up contingency plans for that “2 percent wind” out of the east. One such plan involves conducting a burnout off the Madison River—a strategy that has some residents concerned about smoke inhalation.

“The smoke is killing us,” said one resident during a follow-up Q-and-A, who lives near the northwest corner of the fire. “I’ve got horses with snot running down their noses just because the smoke is so thick—and I heard you say that what you’re going to do is light more fire?”

Maple Fire Division Supervisor Bobby Sutton responded, “It’s a short-term [measure] and the fire essentially becomes starved of the fuels that are available to it.” He added that such an action would only be taken under the right conditions with a favorable wind.

When the new management team takes over, a fire camp complete with a caterer and showers will be set up at the old airport outside of West Yellowstone, according to Ted Pettis, a public information officer presently assigned to the incident.

Pettis said fires burning in the northwestern corner of the park—including the Buffalo Fire, which is currently 2,691 acres—will continue to be managed by a Type 3 team based in Mammoth, Wyoming.

No road closures have been enacted in response to the fires here, but the southern entrance to the park has been impacted by the Berry Fire, which has been burning in Teton National Park for more than a month. This morning, Grand Teton National Park closed Highway 191 between Leek’s Marina and the South Entrance to YNP. The closure was expected to remain in effect through Aug. 23.

Visit go.nps.gov/YellowstoneFire for up-to-date information on the fires burning in the park and trail, campground and road closures.