Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Untold Stories of the Jocko Lakes Fire

Part 1 of 4 - 10 Years Remembered

 

August 3, 2017

DNRC personnel

The Jocko Lakes Fire came to life Aug. 3, 2007. The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Division of Fire responded within 30 minutes of the call at 3 p.m. at the fire was already estimated to be 80 acres.

SEELEY LAKE – On the night of July 18, 2007, firefighters watched as a group of trees burst into flames. The torching trees looked like candles on a birthday cake, at first burning strong only to waver and go out.

Two separate fires were identified and pinpointed on the ridge just south of Upper Jocko Lake in steep, rugged ground.

Severe thunderstorms that day had put down more than 1,500 lightning strikes on the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal lands (CSKT) resulting in eight fires that the CSKT Division of Fire suppressed. For two weeks, the CSKT sent firefighters to check the area, staffed a fire lookout and flew the area several times but the fires never showed themselves again.

On Friday, Aug. 3, a prominent smoke column punched up west of Seeley Lake. The fire, first reported 16 days prior, came back to life in a dramatic fashion. It quickly grew to nearly 400 acres and rolled off the reservation onto US Forest Service land. Because the fire started on tribal land and burned onto US Forest Service land under Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation protection it quickly became a multi-jurisdictional fire.

By the end of the day Saturday, the Jocko Lakes Fire burned more than 13,000 acres and forced evacuations for the Placid and Seeley Lake areas.

* * *

The summer of 2007 was a busy fire season. The CSKT had three active fires on, and one north of, the reservation before the Jocko Lakes Fire took off. The tribe was only equipped with two engines, a dozen firefighters and one initial attack helicopter they shared with the Lolo National Forest-they were spread thin.

DNRC Clearwater Unit Supervising Forester Craig Nelson said the state was "just getting peppered with small fires all season. It was all hands on deck; no one was doing timber or anything else. All we were doing was fire."

The Seeley Lake Ranger District was already managing several small fires and had a Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT), a multi-agency/multi-jurisdiction team for extended incidents, on the Conger Fire near Ovando.

* * *

Friday, Aug. 3 was a career-defining day for Tony Harwood. As the Fire Management Officer for the Tribes, he went from one fire to the next allocating his available resources as best as he could.

At 6:30 a.m. the Chippy Creek fire burned onto the reservation. At 10 a.m. the Type 2 IMT managing the Garceau Fire turned responsibility back to the tribe. The CSKT also sent resources to help with the 200-acre Hog Heaven Fire just north of the reservation.

"We had all of that lined up and then we had the Jocko Lakes Fire that was reported at 3 p.m.," said Harwood. "I think that was about as busy as I can ever remember one day being for our organization."

The tribe sent their only available resources-one helicopter and four firefighters-to the fire in the Jocko Lakes area. They responded to the fire call in less than 30 minutes. It was already 80 acres and growing.

"It was two and a half acres long when I got up in the helicopter and about a half mile wide," said Ron Swaney, CSKT's incident commander for the Jocko Lakes Fire, who described the fire movement as a wave. "It was the first time I ever gave a community eight miles out my size-up. You could tell that this thing was going to run."

High winds surfaced through the Jocko canyon and the fire went straight out the other side.

"I've never seen that before and I've never seen it since," said Swaney. "That is the most active rate of spread I have ever witnessed."

The fire was in very steep, old growth timber with heavy fuels in the CSKT's primitive area. Aircraft were grounded because of the gusty winds. Within an hour it was 400 acres and had burned off the reservation.

Representatives from the CSKT, USFS and DNRC met in Missoula that night to complete the Wildland Fire Situation Analysis (WFSA), the process used to determine and document the suppression strategy from the full range of responses available for suppression operations. Because of the complexity of the incident, a Type 2 IMT had already been ordered.

"As soon as we put [the plans] down on paper we were getting intelligence that the fire was moving more rapidly and even our campsites were getting threatened," said Tim Love, the Seeley Lake District Ranger at the time. "We had to keep pulling back. It was evolving very quickly."

* * *

By Saturday morning, the smoke column was visible from Missoula.

"You could see this was going to be a big event. The [Seeley Lake] community was in clear and present danger," said Love. "That's what made this fire different; it was the direct threat to the community."

Glen McNitt's Type 2 IMT from the Northern Rockies was briefed Saturday morning. It was quickly becoming clear that the Jocko Lakes Fire was already transitioning into a Type 1 incident.

"While I was giving them the inbriefing, I couldn't help but be thinking about what was going on up on the hill. I was more concerned about my crew," said Steve Wallace, DNRC Clearwater Unit Supervisor who became the line officer and agency representative.

When the meeting finished just after 12 p.m. and everyone stepped out into the parking lot, everyone could see an enormous mushroom cloud north of Missoula.

"That really got me excited," said Wallace.

* * *

Nelson was the DNRC's Type 3 Incident Commander for the initial attack crew Aug. 4. He oversaw the 1,500-acre spot fire, a smaller fire caused by the main fire nearly a mile away. He had nine people working with him on dozers, a skidgen (skidder converted to an engine) and two aircraft dropping retardant.

Bruce Reid from the Lewistown Bureau of Land Management Office took control of the main Jocko Fire, bringing in three helicopters, three engines and seven personnel.

"We knew we needed to do something," said Nelson.

The fire was threatening private property, Plum Creek timberland and residences near Placid and Seeley Lakes. Nelson's plan was to put in a line that would hold so McNitt's Team had something to work with the next day.

Nelson started constructing a dozer line near the top of Fawn Creek and Horn Creek divide. One dozer was heading towards the top of Fawn Peak. Two other dozers were working to the northwest towards the ridgeline that went towards the North Fork of Placid Creek.

"This was not a good situation from the word go," said Nelson. "We were fighting fire in the wrong direction and this isn't the kind of country to do that in.

The most common firefighting tactic includes starting suppression at the heel or coolest part of the fire. Once an anchor is established, firefighters work the edges of the fire, or flanks, towards the front and pinch the head, the most active flame front. To attack the head of the fire without an anchor is not only uncommon since it is the most active fire front, it can also be dangerous because the fire can wrap around firefighters and trap them.

The wind blew through Placid Creek Canyon and was reinforced by winds coming down other creek canyons creating vortices. After it started moving, the fire created its own weather, sucking air in from all sides and blowing itself down the Jocko Canyon towards Seeley Lake.

Plum Creek Forester Roger Marshall was working with Reid on the main fire. He estimated the fire was moving a mile an hour at its fastest. He watched it run up Fawn Peak in about 30 minutes with 50-foot flames.

"It was amazing. There was just this strong wind blowing. I'm working with air attack, watching the retardant come in, looking at the dozer show one side to the other and you just feel the wind and then all the sudden it just stopped," said Nelson snapping his fingers. "And I was like, what? And I just watched the column of smoke [stand straight up] and then it laid right back over. I was like, let's go!"

The crew responded immediately. They rapidly loaded their equipment and left.

The fire grew by "sneezing" (blowing small embers everywhere out front). The spot fires grew to small "campfires" that quickly combined and would run back towards the main front. This happened over and over again.

"I remember being the last one out and looking around," said Nelson. "Number one, we were lucky and we were out. But number two, you don't know where [the embers] were falling. The column [of smoke] was coming down, coming back up, coming down, coming back up. This was not the [fire] to be in front of."

The conditions were perfect to send the fire surging to the west. Thick stands of trees choked with subalpine fir and thick young lodgepoles acted as a perfect fuel ladder. The conditions were hot and dry. Once it was in the tree crowns, 200-foot flame lengths were reported.

Nelson remembers looking back as he was headed out and swears the column was 2,000 feet above the Swan Range.

"It was immense. I felt like a puppy hiding under a table," he said. 'You could throw everything you wanted to when this thing was rolling and nothing. You just learn how small you are."

* * *

Incident teams usually take a day or two to get in place, make plans and order resources.

"We didn't have a day or two," said Wallace.

Seeley Lake Fire Chief Frank Maradeo requested mutual aid assistance from Frenchtown Fire Department to help with structure protection and evacuations.

Mandatory evacuations were put in place for the Placid Lake area, Riverview Drive, Snomass and Archibald Loop.

The Missoula County Sheriff's Office led evacuations starting early Saturday afternoon. Robert Parcell, Missoula County Sheriff's Deputy said officials went door-to-door, informing all the homeowners and noting any special needs. Even though the Sheriff's Office said it was a mandatory evacuation, that only meant that citizens had to be notified and were supposed to leave on their own.

"Most of the people were pretty good at getting out," said Parcell. "Those that didn't, we made sure they understood the gravity of the situation and, basically, that they were on their own. We wouldn't be coming back to rescue them. They were responsible for their own actions at that point. We were not going to drag them out."

Seeley Lake Elementary was set up as the evacuation center. While many went there, others left the area entirely. In less than a day, the evacuation was complete and roads were closed for safety and security.

"I don't think it was an overreaction," said Love. "It worked effectively in spite of some structure loss. People were safe and got out of there."

The evacuation orders affected many of the volunteer firefighters. Maradeo was amazed that once they had their families situated, they all came back.

* * *

The community packed the SLE gymnasium for a public meeting Saturday night. Love tried to convey that "things were going to get bumpy" but they would get through it.

Wallace told those in attendance that if the wind blew on Sunday like it did Saturday, firefighters could not humanly stop the fire and it would be into the Scapegoat Wilderness east of Seeley Lake.

"That is when it became really clear to me that this was a whole new animal," said Wallace. "We have had big fires before but nothing that was threatening people's lives and livelihoods."

Next week "Untold Stories Part 2": The Jocko Lakes Fire rose to the top priority in the nation. Remembering the days and months following the fires big run at Seeley Lake.

Local Stories

Seeley Lake resident Jon Haufler remembers the Seeley Lake Community Foundation fundraising banquet Aug. 4. The banquet started like normal at the Double Arrow Lodge but the attendees were distracted by the huge "thunder cloud of smoke" coming towards Seeley Lake. Haufler recalls sitting on the deck of the Double Arrow watching trees torching. "About halfway through the banquet they just called it off," said Haufler.

Seeley Fire Chief Frank Maradeo said a fire was called in at Pyramid Mountain Lumber. It turned out it was someone at the mill calling in the Jocko Lakes Fire. "We had people calling in the Jocko 10 days after town was evacuated."

Leon "Bud" Anderson sat at the dining room table of his cabin just west of Seeley Lake. The 91-year-old built the cabin just off Boy Scout Road 37 years ago and has lived there ever since.

Anderson has seen many things in his time living in Seeley Lake, but he had a unique view of the Jocko Lakes Fire a decade ago.

When officials informed him of the mandatory evacuations, Anderson thanked them for letting him know... and then stayed.

"Well, I saw no reason to move," said Anderson with a grin. "I have a slough right here, open pasture and my horses were not dumb. They knew how to get away from the fire."

The last official who visited the cabin offering to help Anderson move his stock accepted the situation and made a store run to get Anderson some eggs and bread.

DNRC personnel

A retardant drop behind a home in the Shining Shirt area Aug. 4, 2007. The home survived with only a blistered exterior.

"In the mornings there was little action," said Anderson who monitored the firefighting activity from his house. "There was a glow on the horizon in the evenings."

The fire never actually reached his property, but Anderson estimates it came within a few hundred yards.

Growing up south of Havre, Mont., Anderson had dealt with prairie fires before and, even though the Jocko was a different beast in size, scope, terrain and fuel, he was never fazed.

The fire significantly changed the landscape that Anderson called home. In the winter after the fire, he snowmobiled into the area several times.

"I didn't recognize any of the land," he said. "You didn't know exactly where you were riding, you couldn't see any signs you used to see."

Even though fire danger is currently listed as extreme, Anderson isn't worried about anything getting close to him again.

"I've seen forest fires before," he said. "I'm not worried."

 

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