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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Be Prepared and Take Care of Yourself

 

August 10, 2017

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

The Type 2 Team Operations Chief Keith Murphy explaining the suppression strategy.

SEELEY LAKE – Hundreds of people showed up for the fourth Rice Ridge Fire community meeting at the Seeley Lake Elementary school Thursday, Aug. 10.

The country is now in Stage 5, the highest level of preparedness for wildfire and all resources are on maximum alert. The Rice Ridge Fire is still the number one priority fire in the nation.

Fire operations are focused on establishing control lines on the north, west and south edges of the fire. The team is not putting resources on the east flank. The fire will be allowed to burn into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

On the north line, heavy equipment and crews are building an indirect line from the 2015 Morrell Creek Fire burn scar to Rice Ridge Road.

On the west flank crews are putting in an indirect line on the bench just above Highway 83 to keep the fire from reaching the highway. Operations Chief Keith Murphy estimates it will take four more days to complete that task.

The fire did spot below the Rice Ridge Road following the downslope winds from yesterday's thunderstorm. The fire is backing down slowly but was kept in check today with aerial resources.

On the south, they are continuing to make Cottonwood Lake Road more defensible by thinning the fuels next to the roads. The shaded fuel break was completed on Forest Road 4353.

This next week they will be using crews, equipment and fireline explosives to put in an indirect line from the Cottonwood Lakes Road (Forest Road 477) to the top of Mount Morrell Lookout. Murphy said fireline explosives takes a quarter of the time to put in line versus crews in the areas that are too steep for equipment to work. This will be helpful on the southeast areas of the fire where it is critical to keep the fire from threatening the east end of Double Arrow Ranch.

They are also running sprinklers and doing other fuels mitigation along the Cottonwood Lakes Road to help pre-treat the fuels so they aren't as receptive to fire. They do not want to get fire in the canyon because it is a steep canyon and Murphy said it would be hard to hold fire.

Structure protection continues along Cottonwood Lakes Road in the Double Arrow. There are 16,000 gallons of water available in pumpkins, large orange tanks.

"This is still a worry to us," said Murphy. "We are doing our job, we are staying a head of it but we still aren't out of the woods. If we have some bad winds, we will be tested and we will throw everything at it."

Murphy said that if the fire reaches the ridge north of the lookout, the team will start evacuation discussions and make their recommendations based on fire behavior and predicted fire weather. The team is also monitoring the Cottonwood Lakes Road very closely and will make their evacuation recommendations based on proximity to the community if it gets too close for their comfort.

Air Operations Chief Mike Keerigan said when planes aren't seen flying it is because they don't have the visibility required to operate safely. They also don't fly at night. There are many limitations with aerial resources and while they are used as often as possible and very effective, they are not always available.

"Retardant or water are ineffective without people on the ground," said Keerigan. "When you hear 'keeping [the fire] in check' what we are doing is slowing it down. Retardant is much more effective than water but neither are as effective as the people behind it. It gives us time to get the people in there and work."

Keerigan addressed the question about retardant on homes, vehicles and gardens. He said that it is a good fertilizer and should wipe off when wet. While he did not know the chemical make up, he said it includes gum water, clay and chemicals that shouldn't be eaten.

Missoula County Sheriff's Office Captain Anthony Rio asked anyone leaving who are within the evacuation warning area and for an extended period of time to call the non-emergency 9-1-1 dispatch at 406-258-3342, and tell them about the travel plans. They will let the law enforcement team know so if an evacuation does occur, no one is home.

Captain Rio also explained that if someone is not home when an evacuation order is issued, even if they are just running errands, they will not be allowed to come back to their home. While an evacuation order can be issued at any time, the most probable time is during the active burning period, 12 -10 p.m., and during the night.

Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield explained that the air quality in Seeley Lake is hazardous and the official recommendation from the health department is for people to leave the area.

"We have never seen levels [of particulates] this high before. It is incredibly hazardous air every night and morning," said Coefield. "The Health Department is recommending that people avoid the area."

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

The evacuation warning area as of Aug. 10. No evacuation orders have been issued to date.

The Health Department said a particle mask that is purchased at most hardware stores is not protective against the fine particulates from smoke. A N-95 respirator is what is needed to filter these particles. They are not advised to the general public because people will not get enough air exchange while wearing them and must be custom fit.

Coefield said that staying indoors is not an effective way to prevent exposures in this case. Staying indoors reduces activity, but the air indoors, without a filtration system, is just as bad as outside. The Health Department is also recommending that no athletic practices occur while the smoke levels are hazardous.

Dr. Todd Fife from the Seeley-Swan Medical Clinic said that there has been an uptick of respiratory problems. People with asthma, premature or young children, those with heart disease of lung problems, women who are pregnant and those 65 or older are at the highest risk.

"There are people really at risk for serious respiratory problems," said Dr. Fife. "We want you to avoid the smoke. If you are having trouble don't wait to take action."

 

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