Thursday, August 27, 2015

Firefighters Ride BNSF to the Firelines!

This NASA satellite image taken by vehicle Aqua, shows the smoke array billowing out of the regional conflagration. Washington State is especially hard hit, with 16 major fires.

I highlighted two fires of  interest. First, the Okanogan Complex, containing more than 400 of the 1,000 square miles burning mostly out of control in central Washington State, and  second, the Sheep Fire in central Montana, which poses a threat to a national treasure, the Izaak Walton Inn.

Satellite Aqua is part of the "A-Train" - a string of six satellites, running up to four minutes apart, in an identical orbit! PARASOL ceased operation and fully exited the A-Train on December 18, 2013. Click here to learn more about this precision flying squadron.

For the first time in fire service history, civilian volunteers are being accepted to relieve totally exhausted state fire crews working the Okanogan Complex who have been on the job non-stop for weeks, enduring days of more than 100 degrees.

Some 200 personnel from Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma have supplied additional assets. And a cadre of firefighters from New Zealand and Australia, who, themselves have been plagued with increasing fires over the past few years.

The second fire complex is located in Montana; see satellite photo. The "Sheep" fire is burning near Essex, Montana, and has been a threat not only to Essex, population 59, but also to US Highway 2 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF.)

Indeed, Essex (mile post 1170.2), elevation 3,860 ft, is about 20 miles west of BNSF's Marias Pass, elevation 5,213 ft (1,589m) on the Continental Divide.

Brief History I: Marias Pass 

Great Northern's James J. Hill sent surveyor John Frank Stevens to plot a railroad route over the Rockies. Stevens rode the rail to Havre, then took off cross-country to the Blackfoot Indian Agency at Browning, where he tried to hire guides. But none would take him to the low pass west of Browning, refusing because the pass was home to evil spirits.

Stevens suspected the refusal had more to do with the arctic blast of subzero temperatures than evil spirits; he hired a member of the Flathead Nation to lead him. On December 11, 1889, Stevens reached the summit of Marias Pass, marking the passage for Hill's railway.

Before long, both the Great Northern Railway and Glacier National Park were established across the backbone of the continent, and Hill suddenly was owner of the only transcontinental railroad with a national park on its list of main line stops.

Stephens' numerous engineering accomplishments are impressive.

 Track Profile, Marias Pass, 1962.

Brief History II: Essex, Montana 

The origins of Essex date back to 1889, the year Montana achieved statehood. Essex boomed with railroad workers on the western flanks of the pass. The workers patrolled the rail, tended water tanks, filled coal chutes, shoveled snow, and, occasionally, took a " helper" engine up the pass to pull a struggling train over the top.

And all those hundreds of workers needed a place to sleep and eat and, on occasion, gather for a drink of something guaranteed to take off the chill. What began as a camp for railroad workers, the Izaak Walton Inn, opened in 1939. Despite its blue-collar beginnings, the inn had from the first a name steeped in history and culture.

Izaak Walton Inn was constructed with uncommon style and polish, at an exorbitant cost of more than $40,000, as Hill planned to operate it as a tourist stop once a third entrance to Glacier National Park was established across the street. That street, now U.S. Highway 2, didn't amount to much at the time.

Until 1930, there was no road linking East Glacier and West Glacier, and cars had to be shipped by rail for $6 each over the pass. But World War II interrupted Hill's plans, and the third park entrance never was built, leaving this island of elegance amid the wild and snow-topped peaks.

"James Willard Schultz, the 19th century author who grew famous for living much of his life among the Blackfoot Indians, gave the place its moniker, honoring the area's fine fishing as well as a fine fisherman from days gone by. Schultz named the inn - and the railroad siding - after the patron saint of fishermen, Sir Izaak Walton, who penned " The Compleat Angler" in 1653.

"The Izaak Walton was beautiful, without a doubt, but as train travel gave way to automobiles and airplanes, Essex began to shrink tight around the stylish inn. For years, the few passengers aboard Amtrak rumbled past the flag stop, waving at the employees gathered outside the inn, while automobiles raced past on the nearby highway.

"That is, until residents decided to cash in on the one natural resource they had in abundance. About 240 inches of snow fall on the Izaak Walton in an average year - more than 400 inches may fall in a big winter.

"The 33 rooms and four " cabins" (actually cabooses) fill with cross-country skiers from November to May. In the spring, travelers come to walk through wildflowers. Summer brings park visitors who want to hike and climb and raft the nearby Middle Fork of the Flathead River. In the fall, wildlife and golden larch call people from along the line." (Written by Michael Jamison, of Montana Lee Newspapers.)

The only Official Flag Stop for the Empire Builder Today, the Inn is a popular year-round stop for visitors, especially railroad buffs and cross country skiers. Adjacent to the Izaak Walton Inn is the possibly the most famous locomotive on planet earth - EMD F45 GN 441 - believed to be the only locomotive in the world that has been converted to living space available for rent.

This video gives us a great tour of the loco-inn. Watch for the west bound freighter in full dynamics ~4:00 into video!

Revelstoke Limited purchased the former Santa Fe F45 in June 2008 and restored it externally as Great Northern 441. (There never was a GN 441. GN's last F45 was 440). It arrived at Essex on August 26, 2009, and became available for lodging in January 2010.

The interior can sleep up to four people and includes a living room, kitchen, master bedroom, and bath. The cab has been restored to the current BNSF Railway specification for new and re-manufactured locomotives.

In late 2010 a new 190 foot long concrete platform with tactile edging and state of the art hydronic snow melting system, keeping the platform snow and ice free, was installed at Essex.
Click here for the complete story concerning the movement and placement of "GN 441" at Izaak Walton Inn.

The Sheep Fire 

Forest fires are named after the nearest topographical feature. It provides a quick reference that Interagency resources can identify with. The Sheep Fire was named for Sheep Creek. It continues to burn near Essex, and as of Wednesday morning it had scorched 607 acres.

Tuesday saw light fire activity that allowed firefighters to bring in equipment to help them remove trees and other fuels. BNSF Railway has been moving firefighters on work trains in and out of the fire area, located just above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

Although the fire was mostly calm on Tuesday, it still threatens the railroad, U.S. Highway 2 and the community of Essex, according to fire officials. As of Thursday morning, I contacted the Flathead County Sheriffs off, and learned the fire is now within a mile of Izaak Walton Inn.. A pre-evacuation order remains in effect and residents have been told to be ready to move at a moments notice.

For BNSF, Sheep Creek Trestle is a major asset, which must be protected at all costs. While it is a metal structure, the heat of a fire can temper the metal useless. Loss or damage to the structure poses an unreasonable risk to BNSF's East-West traffic.

Crews recently installed water pumps and high output sprinkles along the length of the structure, hopefully to reduce tempering of steel due to heat, should the fire approach the structure.

Railroad Stuff: GN "441." Originally built as Santa Fe 1910, later 5910, later 5960, built by EMD in June 1968, serial number 34046. More recently it was Morrison-Knudsen 5531, then Utah Railway 9013.

See Also:  BNSF War Train

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