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.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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(4) comments

oldcowgirl
oldcowgirl

Big THANK YOU to all the firefighters, air pilots and all our local volunteer rural fire departments for such a quick response when the fire broke out on Sat. Good job everyone.....

johnny Dollar
johnny Dollar

Here we see millions of dollars flushed down the toilet .....for what? Is this fire not on tribal land?

Recap:
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.

So......all these taxpayer resources are used so kids can camp out and watch the fire burn? Fact is.......ANYONE who builds a home that is surrounded by thousands of acres of pure fuel should realize their home is in imminent danger. These are the same people who COMPLAIN about bears, wolves and other animals molesting their animals. Get a clue.......and get into town.

Aerindel
Aerindel

I'll make you a deal, if I can stop paying taxes to support your precious "town" way of life you can stop paying taxes to protect the other 99% of Montana. I'd like to see how much you like your town with no police, schools, roads sewers or all the luxuries that you people have provided for you, including your fancy paid fire departments. Oh you didn't know? The Arlee fire department is 100% volunteer. It's OUR OWN HOMES we are saving. And what do you think forest fires do when they reach the edge of town, magically stop burning? Keep the attitude of "any money not spent on my own butt is a waste" and we will all burn, even you in your precious town.

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

Never been though this as yet ( I am in the woods and hoping I do not have this experience) but I guess when a helicopter lands in your front yard and firefighters hop out and say time to go, I guess there is not much of a question. What a great job to save those homes. That fire looked terrible yesterday afternoon Thankful for all the brave firefighters working this fire and hoping for their safety. Thanks for the update Missoulian...frustrating watching the smoke and not knowing how things are going.....

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