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Fire crews continue response to Sugar Bay forest fire

Times Observer photos by Josh Cotton A wide variety of tools, equipment and implements were transported from Roper Hollow to the fire scene on Wednesday. Ferrying personnel and equipment by boat shortens the trip from a four mile hike to a ride of just a couple minutes.

Allegheny National Forest firefighters continue to work a 62-acre wildfire that broke out in the area of Sugar Bay.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat ferried 16 personnel across the reservoir from Roper Hollow to the fire location on Tuesday morning.

Transportation by boat turned a four-mile hike into a half mile ride.

Officials expect additional containment as a result of Wednesday’s efforts.

“I would expect we could get more containment today,” Calvin Bernal, incident commander trainee, told the Times Observer. “By the end of the day, as long as we don’t get any crazy winds and nothing crazy happens, we should have more containment by the end of the day for sure.”

Crews load the boat that will take them to the Sugar Bay fire Wednesday morning.

Federal officials announced later Wednesday that the fire was considered 90 percent contained.

“Suppression efforts went well today,” Public Affairs Officer Christopher Leeser said Wednesday afternoon.

Bernal said that accessing the fire by boat is both the best and safest option.

“We’ve been doing a bunch of hiking for prep on the other side,” he said. “It’s about a four mile hike to that point and it takes well over an hour.”

While images taken shortly after the fire started show flames reaching into the skies, Bernal said that crews will see dead logs and stumps smoldering and smoking on Wednesday as opposed to open flames.

The last of three trips ferries ANF fire crews to this peninsula, the location of the 62-acre Sugar Bay fire.

He explained that a fire line was laid Tuesday and that the approach Wednesday would be to “attack big, heavy smokes” on the interior.

The rain that fell Monday night once the fire broke out “did quite a number” on the fire, he added.

The fire continues to pose little threat to any structures in the area.

Bernal said there is a campground to the north. “That’s really the only structures that are known out in this area,” he said, and that campground is “still half a mile away from the fire.”

That campground is the Hopewell Campground, one of the campgrounds on the ANF that is only accessible by boat or hiking trail.

The fire will be staffed during the day until there is more precipitation or it is found to be completely out.

Bernal said there will likely be fewer personnel responding on Thursday.

A total of 18 were involved in the response on Wednesday – 14 on the line, two ANF fire staff at the fire and a boat operator and a volunteer EMT at Ropher Hollow “but available to come across to us at any point.”

All 14 of the wildland firefighters are ANF employees that serve in other capacities – forestry, timber, wildlife biology, recreation, silviculture.

Leeser called it “collateral duty” and said that most of the careers on the forest are represented in what’s called the “militia.”

There are over 70 ANF employees across the forest trained as firefighters that make up that militia.

Leeser said he consulted other ANF staff and there’s a belief that a fire of this size and time of year “is not necessarily abnormal but rather they believe it grew to the size it did because of the perfect conditions.

“The fire started in a remote area and probably went unnoticed longer and grew larger than it would have if it was near a roadway and could be quickly suppressed,” he explained. “Current conditions are dry and the leaf litter in the area was very dry. Once the fire got started the high winds on Monday pushed the fire up the ridgeline.”

According to the National Weather Service, rain was forecast for Wednesday night but accompanied with wind gusts up to 21 miles per hour that were projected to persist for the next few days

A fire report from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources identified the entire northwest region – Warren County included – as “moderate” for the risk of fire danger on Wednesday.

That report forecasted a shift to the “low” category for Thursday.

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