Officials say rain dampened North Country blaze, but risk remains underground

  • Smoke rises from the fire at Lost River Gorge off of Route 112 in Woodstock, New Hampshire on Friday, October 6, 2017. The federal government has now taken over the operations of putting out the fire. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Tuesday, October 10, 2017

While rain in recent days has helped firefighters in their battle against a wildfire on a steep, rocky slope in Woodstock, officials say it might take some snowfall before the all-clear signal can be given.

That’s because the fire, which has covered a 70-acre, three-ridge area since it began one week ago, features hot spots below ground, where duff continues to smolder, burn and hide from water and tools.

“Because of where it’s burning, the duff is very, very deep,” said Dee Hines, public information officer for what’s known as the Dilly Fire, referring to the nearby trail. “That just makes it very difficult to completely extinguish, so it could smolder until snow comes.

Still, that doesn’t mean the state will be battling the blaze until winter.

“As much rain as we had (Monday), that could also put it out.,” Hines said. “We’ll know more when things dry out.”

The rough terrain has also made the fire particularly stubborn. Last Friday, in fact, jurisdiction was switched from the Woodstock Fire Department and other state and local outlets to the Incident Management Team Type 3, which incorporated out-of-state support and added much-needed resources to the effort.

Control was given back to local officials Monday, as the fire, while still smoldering, is under control and will now be monitored only in the coming days.

“Any kind of disaster that exceeds the capacity of local resources is when we bring in Incident Management,” Hines said. “Type 3 is fairly small, but we brought it in because local management did not think they had enough resources to deal with it, and in this way they can focus on day-to-day operations.”

“At this point,” Hines continued, “the fire has died down enough where we could pass management back to local officials. It’s not out, but it’s greatly diminished, and there’s a low probability that it will spread further or do any more damage.”

Officials have not determined what caused the fire, which began early on the morning of Oct. 3. Within a few days, dozens of firefighters had been called in, and the blaze had become an unwelcome tourist attraction, clearly visible from Route 112.

Motorists who lined up during the day saw an unusual scene: two Black Hawk helicopters, after dipping their 600-gallon buckets into nearby Beaver Pond, dumping water on the hill to assist firefighters on the ground.

Those who stopped at night saw a red and orange glow. Spectacular fountains of fire shot skyward periodically when flames climbed trees and torched the foliage above. From there, those outbursts would quickly die down, but not before embers had spread to other trees.

Wind and dry conditions added to what has turned into a long, exhausting fight.

“You’d hear the wind rushing and you knew,” Tyler Clark, a local firefighter, said last week. “(The fire) would rush up the trees and spread to the tops of other trees. Everyone would run until we found a safe area. Then we’d re-evaluate.”

While tourist attractions in the White Mountains were largely unaffected by the wildfire, the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves were forced to close for the season 10 days early, taking a bite out of a local business that normally would have been jammed during the just-past Columbus Day weekend.

“Primarily it was us who got hurt,” said Jayne O’Connor, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association, which governs the gorge and the caves. “I did check with other businesses close by, and they told me they were fine. They had some effects from the rain, but that was to be expected.”

“It was in a good spot, far from most businesses and homes,” O’Connor continued. “But it was in a bad spot as far as being difficult to fight because so much of it was underground and it was in a difficult location.”

Asked which hurt businesses in the area more last weekend – the rain or the fire – O’Connor said, “The rain did, except for us.”

O’Connor couldn’t give exact figures on losses, saying, “We lost 10 very busy days from one of the busiest seasons of the year. We have not sat down to go through our finances yet.”

Meanwhile, the fire continues to smolder. Daily patrols are expected, rather than hands-on work, which sometimes saw firefighters crawling on their hands and knees to reach fires. The helicopter flights have also been called off.

Equipment is readily available in case things get hot, Hines said.

“It’s up to local management, but in a practical sense it would probably just be monitoring it,” Hines said. “That means to keep an eye on it and send someone to check the ground periodically. If we have a dry spell, contingencies are in place so local firefighters can get a handle on it.”