Owyhee County rancher Gordon Stanford was baling hay at 10 a.m. on Aug. 10 when he saw a fire burning in the north end of his field off of Cow Creek Road.
He and his son began fighting it, Bureau of Land Management officials said. It wasn’t until three hours later that the first reports of the fire came into the BLM.
“The lookout said there was a large column (of smoke) coming out of Cow Creek,” said Andy Delmas, Bureau of Land Management Boise District fire management officer.
The team made the call that the fire had the potential to grow larger than 5,000 acres. Hotshot crews and more engines were called in, along with the Owyhee Rangeland Fire Protection Association, a group of ranchers trained and certified by the BLM and organized by the Idaho Department of Lands.
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By 3:30 p.m. that Monday, officials had called for and gotten battalions from Boise and New Plymouth, two helicopters, five fire engines, a water tender, two bulldozers, nine single-engine air tankers and one large air tanker.
Winds carried a few embers or firebrands into the sagebrush beyond the fire lines that crews were cutting. Those started new fires, but by the evening of the first day, firefighters were able to hold the line, said Delmas.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
A CRITIC EMERGES
Alan Davis, who owns Greybell Swine and Feed in Marsing, came on the scene when firefighters were setting up a command center that first evening. He isn’t a firefighter and he acknowledged he didn’t get out on the fire line.
“As I drove into it, they didn’t seem they were very concerned with it,” Davis said.
He saw a helicopter that appeared done for the evening.
“It seemed to me if they would have made a couple more runs, they might have got it,” Davis said. “It certainly seemed to me there could have been a whole lot of effort made Monday night.”
Delmas said Davis was right about the helicopter. It broke down and was waiting for parts.
But Delmas’ team was throwing everything it could at the fire. It would be the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug.12, before many of the initial attack firefighters would get some rest.
Davis published his account of the first night in a Facebook post under the name Greybell Farm, which has since gone viral. He said the fire was due to BLM mismanagement and a lack of an aggressive attack the first day.
The Soda Fire grew to 283,000 acres before 700 firefighters got it 90 percent contained Monday, after a week of high winds and hot temperatures that permitted it to race through dry grass and shrubs. Fire crews began demobilizing Tuesday, while some patrolled the lines for hot spots.
Road closures remain in effect for Rabbit Creek Road, Reynolds Creek Road and Silver City Road on the Owyhee Front.
By 10 that first Monday night, the fire had grown to 6,558 acres. Firefighters had a line around it and were hopeful.
“We were making progress ... and some of the Rangeland Fire Protection Association folks went back to their residences,” Delmas said.
His crews stayed on the line all night. At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, winds pushed the fire beyond the lines.
Delmas said he had enough firefighters, planes and equipment, but conditions were too extreme.
Air tankers would drop retardant, which holds the line in front of a fire temporarily. Crews, including the ranchers, would go in and cut new, stronger fire lines — lines scraped free of burnable material. But as they got one area shored up, a fire in another area would escape.
At 9:02 a.m. Tuesday, the wind began carrying firebrands far ahead of the fire. These new spots would take off across the landscape.
“It seemed like it was going good, but within a half-hour the spots were running off because the wind was blowing really hard,” Delmas said.
The fire came out of a rimrock area into an open patch, Delmas said.
“When it got up there, I had a sick feeling in my gut that we’ve got to get people out of the way because this thing is moving,” he said.
By that Tuesday night, the fire was nearly 80,000 acres and on its way to massive size.