Crew arrives on front lines

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST — Firefighters working to control the eastward spread of the Constance fire stood at the bottom of a flaming 50-foot cliff 4 miles from the Dosewallips Road washout and watched it burn.

The 438-acre Constance fire, which began July 11 with a lightning strike, clings to “cliffs as steep as the side of a house,” said Walt Tomascak, a crews supervisor in his 50th season of fighting wildland fires.

The 10 crew members didn’t fight the blaze on the nearly vertical cliff Friday because the difficulty wouldn’t be worth the gain for the small patch of ground, Tomascak said.

“This is maybe just a 100th of an acre burning here,” he said.

“It would take days to put it out. The fire burns into the ground, beneath stumps and through all of the built-up debris.

“It will literally smolder and burn until winter.”

Several spots on the east edge of the Constance fire, which has inched out of the Olympic National Park into the neighboring national forest, are walls of rock and flame.

In many places, the land — covered in rocks, dirt and burning debris — is too steep to climb.

The fire itself is slow-rolling — “crawling” is the term used by firefighters — as it moves across the floor of the forest.

On Friday, only one section on the east side near the road was engulfed in flame. The rest of the land just seemed to cough up smoke.

Helicopters dump water on parts of the blaze, but in some areas, the water would never reach the flames.

Standing next to the blaze and looking up, one saw only a view of tree canopy. No helicopter bucket would work in such a thick forest, Tomascak explained.

So the ground crews have secured as much of the eastern edge as possible, fighting it to keep the flames from coming anywhere near human habitations.

They have wet the land and dug up smoldering stumps and buried wood that posed problems.

They have it under control, they said, but they don’t expect to put it out.

“It will still be going until you get quite a bit of rain,” Tomascak said.

“This will easily burn until the winter.”

And the Dosewallips Trail isn’t expected to be open to hikers until sometime in 2010.

In 2010, the plan is to bring in trail crews to repair the area and reopen it to the public.

“It just wouldn’t be safe to open this back up,” Tomascak said.

“When a fire burns like this, it loosens up everything in the soil.

“This winter, a lot of large rocks and downed trees are going to come down.”

________

Reporter Erik Hidle can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at erik.hidle@peninsuladailynews.com.

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