"We have a challenge
. . . not a crisis!"

August 10, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Gary Noland

Seeley Lake Ranger Tim Love wondered Tuesday afternoon if anyone would show up for the Tuesday evening public meeting on the fire situation.

His doubts were dismissed when Sheriff's Deputy Bob Parcell counted around 250 people promptly on time for the start of the 7 p.m. meeting at which Level IV Fire Restrictions were announced, along with summaries of the fire scene from half a dozen officials with Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC), the Lolo National Forest, and special teams and commanders brought in for support.

For weeks, fires raging near Helena, in the Bitterroot, and closer to home north of Ovando have spread beyond the control of firefighters, and residents of Seeley Lake, a town that could be leveled in hours by run-away fire, are justifiably anxious and nervous. With fires in the Bitterroot blowing up Sunday night and burning 51 homes, fire officials minced few words in laying it on the line:

Love agreed with headlines in the Missoulian newspaper on Monday that read simply: "Unprecedented." Lightning storms started the Upper Monture drainage fire on July 13, Love said, and that has grown to cover 15,000 acres about 15 miles north of Ovando. The Spread Ridge fire, only nine miles north of Ovando, was started from lightning on July 27. This prompted a "warning" for possible evacuation in Ovando where 125 people turned out for a meeting similar to the one here.

"The best we can do is try to keep it away from you and private property," Love said, adding that the terrain is "unsafe" to send in firefighters and two were injured in early attempts. "There're no escape routes for fighters." The fire has been hit with tankers, helicopters and "everything we have, but no success," Love said.

Steve Wallace, supervisor of the DNRC Clearwater Unit, said: "I don't believe anyone in this room has ever been in this situation. Maybe it was like this in 1910." An Area Command is being set up, Wallace said, but there is a "dwindling base of resources," and he's lost several crews in recent days. He urged anyone that suspects a fire to report it promptly by calling 911. Fire Management Officer Colin Moon and Wallace are working together to keep the Clearwater Unit manned 24 hours a day for receiving calls. A new lookout will be assigned to Mt. Morrell in a few days.

Bob Mutch, a former smokejumper who retired from the Forest Service in 1994 and was appointed to head up a special fire prevention team on Aug. 3, said conditions now are as bad as they were in 1910 when winds fanned 1.736 fires, three million acres burned, and 85 firefighters died. "So far we've had no strong wind like in 1910," he said. Fuel index readings are now at the 97% and 98% percentile, Mutch said, meaning that things have only been worse 20 or 3 percent of any past times. Seeley Lake, he added, is a "...town that could go away in an afternoon" given the right fire and wind conditions.

Mike McMeekin of the Missoula County Sheriff's Office said everyone in Missoula County in wooded and forested areas are in the "warning" stage for possible evacuation and that people should be considering now what they might want to salvage if evacuation becomes necessary.
John Agner, fire prevention officer at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, made the official announcement for Level IV Fire Restrictions in effect for the Southwest Zone, which extends north to the Summit, so the Condon area, in the Northwest Zone, is not included in these restrictions.

Level IV means "No open flames outside," Agner said, and that covers federal, state and private lands. "We're going to throw the book at violations," he said, adding that fines are $500 for violations on state lands and $5,000 for violations on federal lands.

Also, all industrial operations, logging, excavation, etc., in forested areas is prohibited. Dirt bikes and four-wheelers cannot go off roads. Other details are printed elsewhere in this issue of the Pathfinder.

If and when Level V Restrictions are activated, entire forests and campgrounds will be closed and roads barricaded, Agner added. "The situation is extreme and getting worse."

Wally Bennett is a Type I incident commander brought in from Idaho on the Monture and Spread Ridge fires. Crews and equipment are being used on the perimeter to keep the Monture fire from "dropping into Young's Creek" drainage and that a contingency line is planned 12-14 miles east of the Spread Ridge fire if it begins to move.

Rick Carlson, fire behavior analyst with the Forest Service, said three weather stations are set up in the Monture area with satellite feeds to monitor weather and that increasing low humidity and high temperatures make it likely that the fire's activity will increase in coming days. "We haven't had much wind," Carlson said, adding that prevailing southwesterly winds should keep the fire from moving west, against the wind, toward the Seeley Lake area. The fire is about 15 miles from Seeley Lake, he said. He forecast no immediate change in the hot and dry weather pattern.
Fire information will be posted downtown and a special booth set up for distribution of pamphlets on how to protect your home, Agner said.

Most officials are expecting things to get "much worse" before it's over.

Tim Love, quoting another source, said "the weather started this and the weather will finish it." Liz Hill, fire information officer who facilitated the meeting, expressed hope for the "August Singularity" that sudden change (even snow sometimes) that happens during Fair Week, though this doesn't appear likely this year.

Ed Gierke with the Montana State Disaster Agency expressed relief that though 150,000 acres in Montana are burning and 120 homes have been lost, there have been no fatalities to date.
McMeekin, of the Sheriff's Office, said that adequate notice, through the media and door-to-door, will be given if evacuation ever becomes necessary.

"We have a challenge, not a crisis," McMeekin said, adding that other counties are in a crisis. "Our challenge is to work together as a community."

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