Over 50,000 acres burns in Sarpy Fire

Nacoma Jefferson
Thursday, September 10, 2020
Over 50,000 acres burns in Sarpy Fire
Photo by Zack Wilson/Bureau of Indian Affairs
Fire crews on Wednesday night fight the Sarpy Fire, which started after red flag fire conditions, high winds and the underground coal seam met in a perfect storm of conditions, igniting the dry grass in the Sarpy foothills near the Westmoreland Absaloka Mine.
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Map courtesy of Bureau of Indian Affairs
The map of the Sarpy Fire shows the area of over 50,000 acres that burned over the course of a week.

An underground coal seam ignited the Sarpy Fire last week, which grew to over 50,000 acres, causing evacuations on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in the Busby area.

The fire, which started at roughly 2 p.m. Sept 2, started after red flag fire conditions, high winds and the underground coal seam met in a perfect storm of conditions, igniting the dry grass in the Sarpy foothills near the Westmoreland Absaloka Mine.

“The fire cause will be confirmed by an investigator, but the point of origin leads directly to a coal seam,” Crow Bureau of Indian Affair Wildland and Fire Management Acting Fire Management Officer Tracy Spang said.

Northern Cheyenne folks know of more than 80 occasionally burning coal seams on their reservation, lit from long-ago lightning or wild fire. Burning coal seams have caused fires for centuries and cannot be easily extinguished. The best way to prevent their wildfires is to remove each season of grass near them.

By Monday, the fire grew to 52,010 acres and the lack of resources was a challenge for crews to manage the fire, but cooperating agencies saved the day by pitching in together, Crow BIA fire officials said in a press release.

The Busby base camp will operate for several more days, as crews mop up and to rehabilitate fire lines by removing dozer berms and reducing fire fighting effects on the land.

“The south side of the fire toward Busby has many snags (burnt trees) hanging across the fire line and requires mop up more than fifteen feet in from the edge of the line,” Incident Commander Trainee Mario Pretty Boy said.

Centers for Disease Control, Indian Health Service of Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribal Health officers checked on fire operations and approved their COV-ID-19 protocols.

Firefighters were “working together but separately, operating in pods,” said Northern Cheyenne Fire Management Officer Adam Wolf.

“COVID is real, we don’t take it lightly, ” added Spang.

Wolf called the incident “a Type 2 fire with a cobbledtogether Type 3 team. We really appreciate the support from the BIA regional office.”

The fire burned about half on Crow and half on Northern Cheyenne lands, with some on state and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Jurisdictional coordination was a challenge at first, but agencies worked together to fix problems in a unified command, fire officials said.

The fire is officially 90% contained Tuesday night, thanks to hard work and Monday’s rain, fire officials said.

The gumbo roads were too muddy Tuesday to allow ground resources to operate safely.

Two light engines and a water tender brought in for the incident will patrol and work the fire for up to another week.

About 7 p.m. the fire burned around several homes along U.S. Highway 212 just east of Busby.

This fire was similar to the Sarpy Complex eight years ago in the same area, which burned more than 85,000 acres in a day, and also headed south overnight to U.S. Highway 212 where it burned a trailer home and threatened other homes.

The Crow helicopter and helitack crew was the first on the scene of the Sarpy Fire last week, followed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of Crow Agency, Big Horn County Rural Fire engines, support vehicles, Bureau of Indian Affairs of Northern Cheyenne Fire engines.

“ Thanks to Big Horn County Rural Fire Chief Matt Redden and his crew did an excellent job the whole time they were out here. They left us in good shape. When the fire began Wednesday, Crow Agency had only two engines, a squad and a helitack module to respond,” Incident Commander Trainee Colton Herrera Sr. said

A Bulldozer crew, local ranchers and other responders showed up by 9 p.m. that night.

“It was a great team effort by private citizens, tribal employees, and B.I.A and volunteer firefighters to have not lost any structures along Highway 212,” said Northern Cheyenne Assistant Fire Management Officer Bobby Cooper.

By 2:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon the fire had burnt estimated 48,000 acres of grass, ponderosa pine trees and as the first response teams leave the scene the challenges for upcoming shifts include limited resources, rough terrain, expected weather, and taking COVID-19 precautions.

Firefighters are being resupplied in the field to address COVID-19 concerns. The Crow fire warehouse was ferrying drinking water, MREs, personal protective equipment and other supplies for fire crews

“I’m concentrating on the people out there and what I can do to help them,” said Crow Fuels Specialist, Randy Pretty On Top.

As for Friday the Sarpy fire grew to about 50,000 acres there was a team of aircraft helping fight the fire as well. Two singleengine air tankers and one heavy, one medium and two light helicopters were busy ferrying retardant and water onto edges of the 78 square mile incident.

A heavy air tanker did one drop but was diverted to a newer fire.

“Even though it rains this is not a season - ending event. We’re not out of the woods yet. Several days of rehabilitation and mop-up remain on the fire,” BIA Regional Fire Management Officer Bryce Rogers said. Rogers said, “I want to thank both Northern Cheyenne and Crow Agency fire crews and all our cooperators for stepping up. As firefighters, we adapt. I appreciate the agencies coming together.”