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USFS report: Pine Creek fire caused by spark from excavator

Enterprise file photo by Shawn Raecke

A Park County Rural Fire District No.1 water truck drives along East River Road ahead of a plume of smoke near Pine Creek on Aug. 29, 2012.



A spark from excavation activity on private land caused the August 2012 Pine Creek fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service report obtained by The Enterprise Monday. 

The blaze began Aug. 29 about 13 miles south of Livingston in the Pine Creek area of the Paradise Valley. Flames raced across the landscape that afternoon, destroying structures and forcing area residents to evacuate homes.

A man was “excavating a foundation and a spark ignited volatile fuels in the area” around 2:15 p.m. on Aug. 29, the report states. USFS officials redacted from the report the man’s name and identifying information such as age and address to protect his privacy, according to a letter that accompanies the report.

The report states investigators identified no criminal activity related to the fire’s ignition and notes “there was no restriction in place by Park County to restrict use of this type (of excavation) operation due to high fire danger.” 

The fire burned five homes as well as many outbuildings and consumed roughly 8,000 acres of private and federal lands, the report states.  

Investigators determined the point of origin was north of Rocky Hollow Trail and about 700 feet east of the Yellowstone River. The road is just south of the community of Pine Creek, on the west side of East River Road. 

That day, a man was using an excavator to work on a hole from which the machine’s bucket had removed a large rock, the report states.

“Fine metallic particles gathered from the hole and burn indicators show the fine fuels ignited when the bucket scraped the large rock,” according to the report. That action caused “hot metal materials to drop into the dried fuel bed,” it states.

The excavator operator used a fire extinguisher on the blaze and tried to use construction equipment to keep it from spreading, fire investigators found.

Investigators also found a cigarette butt near the point of origin. But they determined it had been there for some time and that other factors ruled it out as the probable cause.  

Suppression costs for Pine Creek fire were estimated at $4 million and restoration of USFS land will run roughly $60,000, the report states. The investigation does not list an estimate for damages to private property.

Fire investigators arrived in the Pine Creek area Aug. 30. The investigation wrapped up Jan. 29, according to the report. 

Investigations like that for the Pine Creek fire often take a while to complete, Angie Monaco, a USFS worker who fields information requests, said in February. 

At that time, Monaco said the report was done but going through final checks and approvals, and wouldn’t be released for a while longer. In order to obtain the report, USFS was requiring members of the media to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, she said.

The Enterprise filed a request in February and received a mailed copy of the report Monday. 

Numerous parts of the report are redacted. Redactions include information about who called 911 to report the fire as well as information about witnesses investigators interviewed and their statements. However, the substance of the statements is included in the report, according to a letter accompanying the investigation findings and which addresses The Enterprise’s information request.

The Freedom of Information Act permits the redaction or nondisclosure of certain pieces of information, such as that which would identify a person in matters in which personal privacy supersedes the public’s interest in disclosure, the letter states.