Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne

Winds Test Fire - Firefighters Hold Their Own


August 31, 2017

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Div A was the area where the fire spotted into Murphy Creek and caused the Evacuations Warnings on Wednesday for the residences north of Seeley Lake. Div W was holding after it got up and ran towards town Monday night. Div T was very active today burning across the dozer line down the ridge from Mount Morrell and towards Cottonwood Lakes. Div P was also very active with the fire pushing east in the Cottonwood Drainage. Firefighters picked up nearly 20 spots across Cottonwood Lakes Road but were able to keep them in check. They are working to keep fire north of Cottonwood Lakes Road.

SEELEY LAKE – The Seeley Lake Community Hall was filled to capacity Thursday night, Aug. 31 for the 10th Rice Ridge Fire community meeting. Incident Commander John Thompson said the firefighters are holding their own despite the winds and passing cold front. This was a change from his assessment Tuesday night at the Ovando Community Meeting where he told those in attendance they were getting their butts' kicked.

There have been eight large fires since mid-July on every district of the Lolo National Forest except Plains. Last night, there were 16 initial attack fires on the Plains/Thompson Falls district. Two escaped initial attack and one is 200 acres and the other went to 700 acres. The Lolo National Forest currently has 2,500 firefighters working on the forest. That is nearly a fifth of the resources nationally.

"We need to maintain focus that all of us are safe and home at the end of the day," said Lolo National Forest Supervisor Tim Garcia. "If we can support each other through the duration of the fire and maintain that focus we will all be able to get through."

The Rice Ridge Fire perimeter is more than 30 miles long. There are 750 personnel assigned to the fire.

In Div A on the north end of the fire, crews are trying to hold the fire east of Rice Ridge Road (Forest Road 720). They have been trying to establish an anchor point on the 2015 Morrell Creek Complex. Today they made progress because the winds were favorable.

In Murphy Creek they are trying to put in heavy equipment line closer to the fire. They are using Forest Road 685 and tying that into the main contingency line that was put in by the Eastern Team.

Winds out of the southeast are expected to materialize by this weekend so crews are working to get the line to a point where it will hold.

Operations Chief Steve Christman said things are looking good where the fire made the run towards town on Monday. The wind tested it today and crews, heavy equipment and aerial resources were able to hold it. It has been spotting in Morrell Creek and they have added a contingency line that held today.

The face of Mount Morrell burned today and fire crossed the dozer line that was painted with retardant a couple of weeks ago and where the fireline explosives were used. Division T was really active fire day. Crews are working fire down slowly to the Cottonwood Lakes Road, trying to keep it a lower intensity backing fire and not giving it the option to get up and run.

Wednesday night around 8 p.m., the fire crossed Cottonwood Lakes Road. They picked up 15-20 spots that they were able to hold today. Winds pushed the fire east in the Cottonwood Canyon east today and they are letting it go east.

Christmas said a lot of the visible smoke today came from the part of the fire that burned into the wilderness.

"We are holding our own," said Incident Commander John Thompson. "The wind is favorable at the moment. If the wind continues to be favorable, we want to get you back into your houses but we don't want to evacuate you again. We want you to go home and we want you to stay at home.

Thompson said they need to get through the rest of today and tonight and will begin reassessing the evacuation order tomorrow at 6 a.m.

"We got some breaks today. Some of the things with the weather have happened in our favor," said Thompson. "We judge success by bringing home everyone safely, that includes you guys."

Missoula County Sheriff's Office provided escort today for evacuated homeowners to access their property for 10 minutes. Weather willing, they will do escorts tomorrow starting at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Those who would like to access their property, are asked to sign up at the Sheriff's trailer at Cory's Valley Market. Requests will be taken based on need.

Captain Anthony Rio addressed the question for those who did not receive the Smart911 text about the evacuation area Highway 83 to Tamarack Drive. He said it was human error and the area was not included in the system. He did point out that everyone that was available received personal contact with a sheriff's deputy giving them the order.

When the evacuation orders are lifted, Smart911 users will be notified via their phone and the information will be put on through the Sheriff's Office, Inciweb and through other social media outlets.

The lake continues to remain closed. That will be reassessed tomorrow.

The U.S. Forest Service extended their closure areas to include Horseshoe Hills. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also closed the majority of the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area due to the extreme fire danger. Ovando Mountain remains open.

A questions was asked about why hasn't there been better forest management and why haven't firewood cutters been allowed behind gates to help mitigate fuels to prevent this.

Garcia said that a number of projects have been planned and implemented in the Seeley Lake area and that will continue. Currently more than half of the Forest Service's budget goes towards fighting fires, not leaving a lot for restoration work.

"As we look at the resources that we've got and our ability to manage the forest," said Garcia. "Our interest is to try to make sure that when we align projects that we are doing it in a way that we can protect communities."

Community member and Operations Chief of Pyramid Mountain Lumber Loren Rose agreed that there is a problem and it is a valid question, however the management team and the firefighters are just here to do their job and they are working incredibly hard. He encouraged everyone to get a hold of Montana's Senators and voice their concerns.

"We can use the Rice Ridge Fire as an example of what we don't do and [ask] can we do better next time," said Rose.

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

Lolo National Forest Supervisor Tim Garcia gave an update on the Lolo National Forest Situation. There are currently 10 large fires burning on the Forest and more than 2,500 firefighters working here, nearly a fifth of the firefighting workforce in the country.

Community members are encouraged to call the schools to find out more information about classes next week. Seeley-Swan High School Principal Dr. Kathleen Pecora is meeting with Superintendent Mark Thane on Friday and Seeley Lake Elementary Superintendent Chris Stout is going to make a decision Saturday whether the elementary will start Tuesday, Sept. 5 or Monday, Sept. 11. The teachers have been allowed to get back into the schools to gather what they need for next week.

The Seeley Lake Refuse District will be open this weekend Saturday and Sunday during their normal hours 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. This is subject to change depending on fire activity.

Seeley Lake Fire Chief Bob Vanden Heuvel assured the community that the fire department is still staffed and is responding the emergency calls.

The next meeting is tomorrow night at the Ovando Elementary School at 6 p.m.


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