HAMILTON – On the day the Roaring Lion fire exploded across another 3,000 acres southwest of here, someone decided to walk away from a campfire that was still smoldering just a few miles south of the blaze.
While firefighters worked to shore up lines on a fire that’s already claimed 14 homes and burned 11 square miles, Hamilton Volunteer Fire Chief Brad Mohn said others had to rush to extinguish the new start in the Lost Horse drainage.
“Luckily for the team, we were able to divert a heavy helicopter that dropped 6,000 gallons of water on the new fire,” he said.
They managed to keep the blaze at a quarter acre.
“It was stupid,” Mohn said. “People really need to be extremely careful with fire right now. Resources are pretty well tapped out.”
Both local and Forest Service firefighters are feeling the strain. In the 72 hours since the fire roared to life, Mohn said he’s had eight hours of rest. Other volunteers are operating on just a little bit more.
On Wednesday, Montana's Congressional delegation and Gov. Steve Bullock came to Hamilton to thank the firefighters, forest workers and local law enforcement officials.
The Democrats – Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester – were briefed by local stakeholders Wednesday morning, then met privately with the firefighting leadership team. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, both Republicans, made separate stops in Hamilton later in the day for their own briefings and chance to thank the exhausted crews.
The visits took place in the relative calm after an overnight firestorm when wind gusts up to 50 mph sent flames soaring 200 feet into the air.
Heeding the warnings of high winds Tuesday night, Mohn called out volunteer firefighters from every Bitterroot Valley community.
In the subdivisions of Whispering Pines, Gold Creek Loop and Haven Road, Mohn said those volunteer crews managed to keep the fire at bay. Not a single home was lost.
“There was a lot of good work done last night and some luck,” he said. “I’m shocked that there was no loss of any homes.”
Former Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss watched the fire from her property just south of Hamilton.
“From Camas Creek to Judd Creek, it was a solid line of fire,” Foss said. “As we watched, the wind kept changing directions. One minute it was going north, the next minute it was going south and then east and then west. It was amazing.”
Up against that inferno, Foss said firefighters and bulldozer operators worked to build a 30-foot-wide fire line along the back edge of her family’s property.
The tactic grew out of local firefighter Kurt Rorhbach's intimate understanding of the mountains he calls home.
“We know that we often get huge afternoon winds in the summer," Foss said. "He said the only way to stop it will be a dozer line.
"When Kurt spoke up and told them what he knew, it changed their whole line of attack. That’s probably what saved our house,” Foss said.
As they watched the fire come down the hill, Foss said they worried it was getting too close to the men operating the bulldozers.
“We were so afraid that those guys on the Cats wouldn’t be able to get out,” she said. “We could see the dust from the dozers and the flames and smoke getting closer and closer. We were all praying that that they would get off those dozers and run for it if they had to.”
“They all worked so hard to stop that fire,” Foss said. “Honestly, these people. There’s no words, just no words. It makes me cry.”
As of Wednesday morning, the Roaring Lion fire had burned 7,130 acres. Most of the new fire activity Tuesday night occurred on the south end of the fire toward the Ward Creek drainage, which contained significant beetle-killed and drought-stressed heavy timber.
By Wednesday, there were 524 firefighters assigned to the blaze, 33 engines, five bulldozers, 15 water tenders and nine helicopters.
Cole said the Roaring Lion fire is the No. 1 one priority in the Forest Service’s Northern Region.
Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton said public access into the mandatory evacuation area is off-limits until further notice.
“There are some rumors that there has been some looting occurring, but that’s not true,” Holton said. “That is a huge concern for us. We don’t want to have too many people driving around those evacuated structures.”
The sheriff’s office is patrolling the area both day and night in marked and unmarked vehicles.
Every six hours, Holton said officials are reevaluating the issue of access for homeowners.
“Our first priority is to open that area back up to residents and landowners as soon as we safely can do it,” he said.
Thursday's weather forecast offers some encouragement. Although temperatures are supposed to head back up into the 80s, the wind are expected to be calmer.