Bacon Rind Fire spreads into park
But it’s still a minor threat
A lightning storm passing over a 9,000-foot ridge south of Big Sky on July 16 might have sparked the Bacon Rind Fire, which wasn’t detected until Friday, July 20.
By Sunday, July 22, 40 firefighters were on scene at the Bacon Rind Trailhead. They watched the 50-acre blaze spot torch dead trees as it moved slowly through a mix of small meadows, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Black smoke spun skyward while lava-orange flames erupted in short bursts.
“There’s the dragon,” said a firefighter after watching one of the fiery bursts.
Lacey England, the designated public information contact with the Forest Service, said, “So far the fire is not threatening anything. It’s in the wilderness. If it goes west, it’s just going to go farther into the wilderness. If it goes south or east it’s going to go into the park. And if it goes north, there is a private inholding to the north, the Black Butte Ranch.”
Black Butte Ranch sits about five miles from the fire, said England, adding, “That private land is defensible. And we’ve been talking to them about fuel mitigation if necessary. Right now, the fire is not threatening anything really and conditions on the hill are dangerous. There’s dead trees, snags that are falling down. We try not to put people in those situations if we don’t have to.”
On July 22, there were two vehicles with Montana plates at the Bacon Rind Trailhead and England said, “We put a couple of folks on top of the trail, inserted them via helicopter. And they are coming down the trail and bringing anybody with them. And it will be closed, so nobody else will be going up there.”
All the fire crews and their supervisors in West Yellowstone could do at that time was, “See what the weather brings,” said England. “We have a lot of storms come through and weather changes really fast.”
That’s why fire crews gather hyper-local weather data for each fire incident and send it to the National Weather Service.
“We do what’s called a spot weather,” said England. “And we get a very specific forecast for exactly where we are instead of a big regional forecast that is influenced by the actual data that we’ve gathered on the ground. So according to this spot forecast, weather is going to be pretty mellow and thunderstorms are not expected until Tuesday. So it looks like we have a few days where weather isn’t going to be very severe.”
On Tuesday afternoon, July 24, light rain accompanied by wind gusts moved through and helped grow the Bacon Rind Fire to more than 200 acres, with spot fires moving downhill. For the first few days, the fire burned in Lee Metcalf Wilderness along its border with Yellowstone National Park. By the 24th, it was moving inside the park toward Highway 191.
That’s where Mike Burdic and other fire watchers gathered with their binoculars and cameras while the mountainside crackled, smoked and exploded into orange waves of flame as the fire continued to advance.
Burdic drove up from West Yellowstone to take pictures and said, pointing at the flames, “That section right now that’s burning, it was 100 yards behind that when we got here, so it’s moving. It’s torching, candle-sticking.”
Burdic used the terms “torching” and “candle-sticking” to describe how the fire advanced tree by tree, lighting up like a giant wick on a candle. This happened as the fire spread from the ground by burning up “ladder fuels”—deadfall and brush—which ignited into the canopy and delivered a light show for Burdic and others watching from the highway below.
Jim Holstein, a Yellowstone guide from Big Sky, stood alongside Burdic, eyes fixed on the advancing flames.
“I just came down to analyze. You know, we’re running tours early. But I don’t think this thing is going to affect the highway too much,” said Holstein, who went on to describe how cold night air can push smoke into the valley below and cause smoke inversions around daybreak. That has the potential to slow traffic along Highway 191, but it shouldn’t prevent Holstein from transporting clients into the park. At least not yet.
On the evening of Tuesday, July 24, others whose livelihoods depend on Yellowstone Park tourism gathered in West Yellowstone for a fire briefing from the Forest Service.
Todd Erdody, fire ecologist with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said we should expect more gusty winds in the coming days. But so far, the fire hasn’t advanced north toward Snowslide Creek and beyond that, Black Butte Ranch.
“Most of the growth is toward the east and southeast,” explained Erdody, which means it’s advancing on Highway 191, but not moving toward Big Sky.
Marianne Baumberger, who took over for England as the Forest Service’s public information contact, told the group gathered in West Yellowstone, “Our definite goal is to not close that highway. And the Montana Department of Transportation is usually pretty good about that.”
When Bob Culbreth, acting fire management officer with the Forest Service, addressed the group, he offered specific details about how the Bacon Rind Fire was burning.
“The stand up there is probably about 60-70 percent dead timber,” said Culbreth. “And with dead stand timber, it’s very dangerous to put crews on that fire.”
Culbreth went on to add, “Our big concern is private land and structures. The Black Butte Ranch and Elkhorn Ranch. That’s what we’re currently assessing and currently starting to do some mitigation work around the Black Butte Ranch… in case the fire decides to move that way.”
Culbreth then described how two “light helicopters” based in West Yellowstone are being used “for recon” and to shuttle crews or provide bucket support.
The helicopters have not yet dropped any water, said Culbreth, explaining, “Where the fire is along the ridge, honestly it wouldn’t be effective. We’d just be exposing pilots to risk. Obviously, questions have been, when it was three to five acres, couldn’t we have thrown a bunch of buckets on it then? We would have still had to put boots on the ground to make sure that fire was taken care of at that time.”
On the morning of Wednesday, July 25, the Forest Service planned to do a recon flight over the fire.
For the latest information about the Bacon Rind and other fires, long onto https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5992.