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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

CRC Remembers the Jocko Lakes Fire

 

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Retired Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love recounts the Jocko Lakes Fire from his perspective. Members of the audience also shared their stories following his presentation.

SEELEY LAKE – Seeley Lake residents and others who experienced the Jocko Lakes Fire of 2007 were asked to step back 10 years and remember the eminent threat to the community, lessons learned and talk about what has changed as a result of the fire. Clearwater Resource Council hosted the Remembering the Jocko Lakes Fire event June 25 to commemorate the 10 year anniversary.

The event started with a driving tour of the more than 36,000-acre Jocko Lakes Fire led by CRC board member Jon Haufler and Forester Roger Marshall. They stopped and discussed the historical and current role of fire on the landscape while pointing out various forest types and their response to fire.

"What has happened between historical and current conditions is we have stopped the role of fire in this landscape," said Haufler. "It has changed this landscape composition and the structure of the landscape."

Haufler explained that the large larch and ponderosa pine have been cut and those that are left, have a thick understory of lodgepole and Douglas fir. This creates a high intensity fire that makes it difficult for trees to survive compared to the historical, low-intensity fires.

Fire ecology of the area was also discussed. Seeley Lake District Ranger Rachel Feigley pointed out various fire-tolerant species including lodgepole, ceanothus and aspen.

Lodgepole has serotinous cones that require heat from a fire to open. After a fire goes through, their seeds become viable.

Ceanothus is a nitrogen-fixing shrub that is shade-intolerant. This is seen in large clumps on south/south west slopes of the historic Jocko Fire.

Burning aspen stimulates a hormonal response in their roots causing sprouting. This diversity may have been lost prior to the fire.

"If we don't have the diversity, then we have the sea of what is going to be a homogeneous forest that is growing all at the same time and all the same age," said Feigley.

Marshall said Plum Creek planted more than one million trees following the Jocko Fire including planting the entire top of Fawn Peak. They also salvaged as much timber as they could in the six-12 month window to harvest.

Returning from the field, Donna Love shared her photos that she took daily from the Seeley Lake Ranger Station. It showed the progression as the fire moved across the landscape and the work that was done to help control it.

Retired Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love took the audience on a journey through the 2007 fire season. He recounted the management decisions, objectives of the Jocko Fire, community involvement, costs, losses and lessons learned.

"Thinking back to 10 years ago seems just like yesterday," said Love.

Love said that the fire started five to seven days earlier on Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal lands in the primitive area.

"Many thought that the tribe had let this fire burn. They had not. In fact they tried to find it, they had flown it and had looked for it. But as many of you know, sometimes fires go to sleep and then all of the sudden they will come to life," said Love. "This fire was a wind-driven event and it was off and running."

Love recalled being in Missoula Aug. 4 making plans with the Type II Incident Management Team. He said they could see the column standing up.

"I called my wife and said 'You know, be prepared that you have to evacuate,'" said Love. "Probably like many of you were thinking, it doesn't look too bad. But from where I was standing it was looking really bad. This fire was going to move."

The fire made a 10 mile run on Aug. 4 right at Seeley Lake. According to Love, this put the Jocko Lakes Fire on the top of the National Priority List for nearly five weeks.

"To use the words of Tom Clancy, it was a clear and present danger," said Love. "Because we were the number one priority fire in the nation, we were getting all the resources we needed to fight the fire."

Love said the Type II team led by Glen McNitt attacked the head of the fire to protect Seeley Lake. This is an uncommon and risky decision. However it worked, thanks to an east wind Aug. 5. They quickly transitioned to a Type I Team from Alaska that managed the fire for more than two weeks.

The fire cost $31.5 million, $875 per acre, to suppress. The loss of timber on Plum Creek, state and federal lands was estimated to be more than $49 million.

Love estimated the economic impacts to Seeley Lake businesses were in the tens of thousands of dollars. They closed the lake, Pyramid Mountain Lumber closed, the majority of town and the Double Arrow Ranch were evacuated and Highway 83 was closed for a week. Many of the seasonal residents left to their winter homes two months early. One home and numerous outbuildings were lost.

"You have the incident and you're fighting the incident and that is one thing," said Love. "And then you have the public and working with the public. Giving people good information and timely information is important because anxiety levels are up. What I've learned in this fire business is rumors spread faster than the fire its self."

Seeley Lake resident and Safety Officer on the Jocko Lakes Fire Boyd Gossard shared that he found a burned ember that was more than an inch long on his deck. He lived more than a mile and a half from the head of the fire.

"There was real good reason for people to be a little anxious," said Gossard and laughed.

Scott Thompson said he was working at the Rich Ranch during the fire. He said there were live embers landing in the pastures around Woodworth Road.

Karen Winther and her neighbors were evacuated in the middle of the night. They all camped in their cars that night at Clearwater Junction.

"It was like a big old slumber party," she said and laughed. "We didn't know when we would be able to go back and when we could go back we were asked for our IDs to get back to our own houses. It was a really scary thing."

Cheri Thompson thought it was humorous that when law enforcement made their rounds to evacuate, "a good portion of town" was at Dick and Cindy Lewis's for their daughter's wedding reception. "It was like one-stop shopping," she said and everyone laughed.

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Past Plum Creek Forester Roger Marshall shows tour participants the fire progression map and the fire severity map. The group was standing in the high severity portion that burned Aug. 4 during the wind-driven fire. Historically on south/southwest slopes like this one there were frequent, low severity fires. Clumps of ponderosa pine regeneration were more typical than the thick lodgepole that is seen on the site today.

Many people agreed that the list they were provided helped them prioritize their belongings during the evacuation. Another attendee added having a list of essentials from every room helps his family be prepared. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation also provides a Ready, Set, Go program as a resource to prepare for evacuations.

Bob Wasson said since the Jocko Lakes Fire, DNRC and the US Forest Service have done various fuels mitigation projects in and around the Double Arrow Ranch. The landowners on the ranch have also done a lot of fuels reduction on their property but more still needs to be done.

"I asked the Incident Commander on the Boles Meadow fire [in 2003] what about the Double Arrow. He said there is not much chance they were going to put anyone up there to fight a fire because unfortunately it is all downwind, it is all uphill and there is no way to get firefighters out if they need to get out in a hurry. So I recommend and suggest to you, if you haven't worked on your property, do it in the off season."

CRC offers fuels mitigation grants for landowners that covers 50 percent of the cost for fuels reduction. Any revenue generated from the trees cut on the property can be applied to the landowner's 50 percent.

For more information about the program contact Forester Signe Leirfallom via email signe@blackfootchallenge.org or call 406-793-3900.

 

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