Benchmark fire

The Benchmark fire burns west of Augusta Tuesday. 

The incident management team currently on the Sucker Creek fire near Lincoln will hand over command to local officials Thursday and take over management of the Benchmark fire west of Augusta as well as other area fires in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The Benchmark fire was reported in the early afternoon Tuesday burning approximately one mile west of the Benchmark airstrip, or 22.5 miles west of Augusta. The fire triggered the mandatory evacuation of the upper section of Benchmark Road.

The evacuation area includes 10 Forest Service lease cabins, none of which had residents at the time, said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton. Deputies have a roadblock near the Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, he said.

Some cabin owners were allowed in to prepare their homes on Wednesday, Dutton said.

Also in the area are cabins to the south, a Forest Service rental cabin, a Rocky Mountain Ranger District administrative use site and several heavily used trailheads.

Dutton estimated 15 vehicles were left at trailheads in the fire’s vicinity. The safety of the people in the backcountry was not a major concern as the fire is highly visible and can be easily avoided, he said.

The fire grew to about 50 acres as of 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to Helena and Lewis and Clark forests’ supervisor Bill Avey.

“We’re holding our own but expect to see growth with forecasted fire weather,” he said. “Our goal is to keep it out of the Benchmark corridor.”

The fire is burning in heavy timber and steep slopes on a ridge between Straight Creek and the South Fork of the Sun River. Ground crews initially attacked the fire yesterday but were pulled back as the fire made several runs burning through the crowns of trees.

“We did back crews off and with the exponential growth we saw, it was the right call,” Avey said.

Three helicopters worked the fire Wednesday with two regional type 1 crews, a hot shot crew and a smoke jumper team along with multiple fire engines, he said. The air attack is much more effective in the heavier fuels where the fire currently burns, he added.

Four aerial tankers also worked the fire Tuesday dropping retardant.

Within the Benchmark corridor, but not in the immediate fire perimeter, the Forest Service has proposed the Benchmark Fuels Reduction project. The project’s identified goals include prescribed fire and fuels reduction to influence the direction of fire spread away from recreational cabins, lodges and campgrounds. The decision was signed in 2010.

The project was appealed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council. The Forest Service appeal officer found that the analysis for the project did not address cumulative effects and was not consistent with the forest plan, recommending the decision be overturned.

In 2013, a modified project, called Benchmark Fuels Reduction III, was signed by the district ranger. The Forest Service has begun hand thinning in the area but the contracted logging for the timber sale has not commenced, Avey said.

The contractor, RY Timber, is currently working on other projects, he said. 

The project limits the use of commercial harvest equipment to winter to reduce resource damage.

If the project had been completed firefighters could “breathe easier” as they manage the Benchmark fire, Avey said.

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The Southwest Area Type 2 Incident Management Team under incident commander Dave Bales will take over management of the Benchmark fire at 10 a.m. Friday morning, said fire information officer Bill Morse. The team will also take over management in the Lewis and Clark National Forest on the 941-acre Family Peak complex and a 50-acre fire near Sheep Mountain approximately five miles west of Gibson Reservoir, which popped up Wednesday.

Trail closures are in place for the area of the Benchmark fire (see breakout) with closures possible due to the Sheep Mountain fire, Avey said.

Bales’ team has been managing the 2,850-acre Sucker Creek fire burning northeast of Lincoln. With that fire now 55 percent contained and evacuations lifted, management will go back to local authorities Thursday, Morse said.

“We’ve been getting smaller and smaller but we’ll still have about 90 people on the fire and they’ll continue to use the same incident command post,” he said.

The fire “took a pretty good run” on Tuesday, burning about 100 acres in the perimeter. That sent up a column of smoke that had some residents concerned but was expected by fire managers, Morse said.

“The fire is doing exactly what we wanted it to do,” he said.

There is a remaining 150 acres of timber that is expected to burn within the perimeter, he said.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the Forest Service has initiated hand thinning as part of the Benchmark Fuels Reduction III project. 

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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