ARLEE – Bob Fry scanned the smoldering timbered mountainsides of Jocko Canyon late Sunday afternoon and liked what he saw.
As a mini-city of tents and firefighters erupted around him at the Arlee Powwow Grounds, a giant plume of smoke rose from the 1,750-acre Firestone Flats wildfire, climbing straight into the sky.
“If the winds come up and start pushing things around and the fire lays down, then we have trouble,” said Fry, a seasoned incident commander whose Type II team officially took over management of the Arlee fire on Sunday evening.
“As long as it’s going straight up, we know what it’s doing.”
During the day, Fry prepared for his duties by hitting the ground with firefighters from Arlee and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, inspecting the work crews did on Saturday when the wildfire erupted.
“The Arlee fire chief and I went up the canyon and looked at all the structure protection in place and where the fire is burning,” Fry said. “The fire has a lot of potential, especially on the east flank and the north flank.”
On Sunday, the fire was most active on the southeast flank, where the fire is burning in thick timber with a lot of dead standing trees.
As Fry and his team studied maps and the steep, heavily fueled terrain of the Firestone Flats fire, safety concerns for firefighters and the public took top priority.
“When fires get a head on them, they create their own weather and there’s a change in fire behavior,” Fry said. “That’s when we get problems and why we have to get the public out of the way.
“We want to minimize distance to safety zones and travel along escape routes. With such a volatile moving mass of people and machinery, you are trying to manage around an environment that is just as volatile and hard to predict.”
“We are very plodding and cautious,” he said.
Although the fire was responsible for the thick smoke and ash that swamped Seeley Lake on Saturday, Firestone Flats isn’t a threat to that community, nor does he expect it to be, Fry said.
The potential for thunderstorms that bring unpredictable wind and new starts from lightning are Fry’s biggest concerns for the next few days.
“From here on out, the fuels are dry,” he said, “but for the next three to five days, the temperatures look favorable for good firefighting – and that’s what we are hoping for.”
As Fry’s team takes over management of the fire, and several hundred firefighters arrive to help, they will inherit the good work conducted by local firefighters, said Carey Cooley, public information officer for CSKT.
All of the 21 homes that were evacuated on Saturday received structure protection from Arlee, Mission, Ronan and Frenchtown fire departments, and the fire was pushed away from the homes by the Lolo and Bitterroot hot shots, two Type II crews from CSKT and tribal fire management.
“All structure protections on all of the homes held through the night,” Cooley said. “And the burnout operations worked well.”
Because the fire was burning close to power lines on Saturday, power to the evacuated homes was cut.
On Sunday, power was restored to the homes, and residents were allowed to check on their properties with a fire escort.
Crews made good progress building control lines on the southside of the fire, and much of Sunday was spent extending those lines around the west and east flanks.
“The firefighters are trying to send the fire where they want it to go – away from the structures,” Cooley said.
Debra Little is grateful to firefighters for their quick and unrelenting response to keep the flames from her doorstep.
“My home is surrounded by the fire, and I can’t believe they saved it,” she said. “I’m in the woods – I’m surrounded by trees.”
On Saturday, Little’s friend Amy Thomas was the person who first saw the fire, which was up a ridge and not far from the home where Little lives with her husband, their two young children and three dogs.
Thomas raced to the house to inform her friends about the imminent fire, but found no one home.
Knowing there wasn’t a lot of time left, Thomas called her friends and began hauling their most precious items to her car.
Other friends arrived to help and so did the Arlee Fire Department. By the time Little arrived, she found her old labrador retriever, Sugar, in the back of a pickup truck she didn’t recognize, and her laundry baskets filled with clean clothes, family photos and her husband’s guitars in Thomas’ car.
Little said she could see the flames getting closer and the fire’s roar getting louder.
“I heard crackling, and it seemed so surreal. Time slowed down and it was just strange. When I walked in, there is my best friend Amy evacuating the house and telling me to calm down – that everything would be all right,” she said. “Then a helicopter with firefighters in it landed in my front yard, and Amy said, ‘It’s time to go’ – and we all knew it was time to go.”