By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – A wildfire, sparked from a suspected cigarette butt, burned an approximate half acre underneath the Swift Current chairlift at Big Sky Resort Sunday morning. Within two hours, the fire was deemed “controlled,” and firefighters turned the incident over to Big Sky Resort to monitor.
The Big Sky Fire Department received a text from dispatch at 11:06 a.m., noting a “working wildfire” at Big Sky Resort. At 11:14, a text went out requesting additional manpower.
BSFD responded with captains Seth Barker – who was incident commander – and Stephen Pruiett, as well as firefighters Mitch Hamel and Mark Loomis. Also joining the initial response at tower 10 under Swifty, were firefighters with the Yellowstone Club Fire Department, and Gallatin Gateway Rural Fire Department.
Three resort visitors riding Swifty down the mountain were the last ones on the lift. Joseph Green, visiting from Tokyo, Japan was with his wife Michelle Kristula-Green and Cathy Osika of Chicago when they rode over the blaze.
“Those few seconds of being directly over the fire were like being in an oven,” Mr. Green said. “We were just lucky the wind was strong enough to blow the smoke away from us.”
“It’s my opinion that is was a cigarette butt thrown off the lift,” said Barker from the top of the fire under tower 11, as he grabbed a McLeod, a rake-like hand tool used to fight wildland fire.
Big Sky Resort ski patroller Mike Russell was first on scene and was quickly joined by lift maintenance foreman Ben Macht and five other lift maintenance personnel.
They began digging line around the fire to contain it and were soon joined by the firefighters, who toted fire hose up the steep embankment from their rigs parked on the access road.
It was the fourth wildland fire Big Sky’s department has responded to this year, according to Captain/I.C. Barker, and the first at Big Sky Resort in six years, when lightning struck a tree near the Shedhorn lift and started a small but quickly controlled fire.
“This is about the best example of how [a firefight] can go,” said Mountain Operations Manager Mike Unruh. “Everything from public awareness and public notification to the immediate response from a number of agencies, resulted in a very small fire. It’s a strong reminder to everyone of the dangers of wildland fire.”
Bob Dixon, ski patrol director for the resort, has prepared his patrollers who remain on-staff in summer of these dangers, training them in wildfire awareness and suppression, but says they can’t hold the public’s hand.
“There are signs up for ‘no smoking’ all over the place,” said Dixon, who’s been patrol director for 30 years. “We tell our lift [operators] not to let them [smoke], but you can’t always control the public.”
As far as fires at the resort, Dixon said this year, so far, they’ve been lucky.
“We’ve been dodging a bullet, which is great. This fire went perfect.”
Captain Pruiett looked up from the bottom of the smoky, smoldering black, his face streaked with ash. He expects the roots and debris to smoke for days to come, and thinks the team’s organization led to the fire’s control.
“It’s all about the initial setup,” he said, wiping sweat from his face. “Barker got here, assessed the situation, figured out where to put resources and set up the water supply. You do it right, and it goes smooth.”