Wildfire surrounds backcountry anglers

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:55 PM

Christine Peterson

LANDER, Wyo. -- Worst-case scenario: gather their tents, put on their waders and stand up to their chests in a frigid mountain lake until the fire moved on. Most importantly, stay calm.

The Alpine Lake Fire roared down the mountain toward them. It sounded like a jet engine punctuated by fiery explosions from falling trees. Smoke engulfed the five fishermen and heat hit them in waves. They tied handkerchiefs around their faces and thought of other contingency plans.

Twenty-two miles into the rugged Wind River Range on Aug. 13, San Diego angler Larry Landeros, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law and two friends watched as the forest around them burst into flames. Help was on its way, they just didn’t know when.

As fall approaches and hunters take to the backcountry, forestry officials caution everyone that fire season isn’t over. Fires can break out quickly and spread suddenly in unexpected directions, said Karl Brauneis, a forester and fire information officer for the Wind River Agency.

"People think because it’s cold at night it will be cold during the day," Brauneis said. "They will take off in morning and in the afternoon the wind will hit a campfire and off it will go."

Trees and brush continue to dry well into October, and as live, green grass goes dormant, fire danger increases. Even if it drops below freezing, backcountry users have to be careful and follow fire restrictions, he said.

Landeros, an officer for the California Highway Patrol, has come every year to Alpine Lake, high in the Wind River Range, often with his father-in-law and brother-in-law. August marked his 25th trip.

The group arrived on Aug. 11 and spent ten hours on horseback reaching the remote lake.

"It’s so pristine in there. Often times it’s only us out there on the lake, we float around and the fishing is extremely good," Landeros said.

They could see a small smoke column far in the distance. It didn’t seem like a threat at the time. The men were experienced in the outdoors and Landeros was trained for emergencies.

Their outfitter headed out the next morning, reporting the smoke.

Helicopters flew above the anglers to drop water on the column. The campers thought what fire remained would be extinguished.

Mid-morning the next day, the helicopter landed near Landeros and firefighters came out of the forest toward him. The fire had grown suddenly and jumped part of the lake and river, they said. He and his friends needed to stay near water.

They asked the helicopter pilot if he’d contact their outfitter, Darwin Griebel owner of Paradise Outfitters. They wanted out. At about 75 yards, the fire was close enough.

They pulled their tents and carried everything onto a green, grassy peninsula stretching into the lake. There they would stay for the night.

"It was just a matter of time before it would get to us, depending on shifting wind," Landeros said. "When the wind gets going in the backcountry it does crazy stuff."

About 2 in the morning a flame erupted on the edge of the forest. A tree near their camp burst into flames. They watched while fire engulfed the dry needles, burned furiously and then died.

Griebel had already sent people and horses in to retrieve the anglers when Forest Service officials told him at an early-morning meeting they had to turn around.

Fire crossed the trail, blocking the only land access. The group would need to be airlifted out.

The anglers made it through the night on their green haven surrounded by water. A helicopter came in the morning, flying them out in three separate trips.

In 25 years taking people into the backcountry, Griebel had never seen anything like this.

Landeros doesn’t know if he’ll make it back to Alpine Lake again. It won’t be the same since the fire consumed more than 6,400 acres and is still burning.

His best advice for anyone else surrounded by fire with no way out: find water and stay calm.

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