LOLO — As they desperately tried to save their home in Macintosh Manor last month from a backburn lit on the Lolo Peak fire, Michelle and Dan Schurg said nearby firefighters refused to lift a hand to help them.
Michelle Schurg worked on wildland fires for 21 years for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, as well as five years on a Type 2 team for the U.S. Forest Service. Her husband, Dan, owns Tamarack Contracting, where he has helped people create defensible spaces around their homes for decades.
When the evacuation order came at 10 p.m. Aug. 16 to their home perched high up Rowan Road on the west side of U.S. Highway 93, they were shocked, since the order came without a warning. But they stayed put, making more preparations around their home so it was defensible.
On Aug. 17, they moved their woodpile away from the house into the middle of the driveway, and put their small propane tanks and gas cans on gravel landscaping. They trimmed weeds and mowed grass to clear a buffer zone down to the ground around their house.
They knew that one ridge over, in Mormon Creek, firefighters were doing backburns that day as a way to “fight fire with fire.”
When Dan Schurg saw two dark smoke plumes above him about 5:30 p.m., “I knew we were in trouble.” But he didn't know how much. The Lolo Peak fire was about to take a 9,010-acre run.
They rode their ATV up the road “to get a visual on where fire was actually at,” Michelle Schurg said.
Dan Schurg jumped in, noting that he could “feel the heat, feel the intensity” of the fire as an air tanker flew over the couple, dropping a load of retardant that splashed them.
Smoke was swirling around them, and as they drove back to their house they ran into what they believe was a fire task force leader. They think it was his first day on the job, since it was a “transition” day, meaning one Type 1 team was handing off the incident to another.
“He pulls up and asks how we’re doing. We know that the fire is coming down on us,” Dan Schurg said. “He has a map trying to figure out where he is. He has no idea of the road system, and the engines are waiting down below.”
“This was brand-new area to him,” Michelle Schurg added. “He didn’t want to put the engines on the hill until he felt familiar with the area.”
A friend helped the couple furiously set up a pump and they ran a few hundred feet of fire hose from their 2,400-gallon cistern, circling their home. They heard propane tanks’ relief valves popping all around them as an 8-foot-tall wall of flames appeared on the horizon.
The hose was twisted, and they couldn’t get it untangled because of the pressure. It was about 7:45 p.m.
“And we see three engines sitting on the road watching us,” Dan Schurg said, clearly exasperated as he recounted the evening. “To my utter disbelief, no one was laying down lines or helping us. They just stood around their vehicles doing nothing.”
“They didn’t even have hose pulled off their engines,” Michelle Schurg added. “My friend and Dan had words with some of the fire personnel that probably can’t be put on paper.”
She asked the firefighter in charge of structure protection what their objectives were, a term used by fire commanders in each day’s Incident Action Plan.
“He accused me of impeding firefighter efforts and I laughed at him and said ‘What efforts? There are no fire people doing anything,’ ” Michelle Schurg said.
The Schurgs and their friend turned their attention back toward protecting their home, and managed to put out spot fires both on the ground and in the trees that were started by flying embers. They worked on hot spots until they ran out of water.
After a sleepless and harrowing night, they went out at first daylight to assess the damage. They believe the two black plumes they saw were two houses that burned. Eight outbuildings also were destroyed.
A Forest Service investigator is looking into whether the backburn lit by firefighters was responsible for the Aug. 17 blowup that raced past the Schurg's home and increased by one-third the size of the Lolo Peak fire — from 18,896 to 27,906 acres.
According to the Aug. 17 Incident Action Plan, 17 vehicles and crews were assigned to the structure protection division that day, with a mix of local volunteer crews and contract crews with the U.S. Forest Service. A dozen more were assigned to Division Foxtrot, whose purpose was to “protect structures in the Travelers Rest and Macintosh Manor zones.”
Mike Cole, the public information officer for the incident at the time, said he doesn’t know what happened on the mountainside that day, and that the Forest Service is reviewing the incident.
Volunteer fire coordinators in Ravalli and Missoula counties who had crews on the fire said it would be highly unusual for crews not to protect structures.
But Missoula Rural Fire District Chief Chris Newman added that since the discovery of the Lolo Peak fire on July 15, they inspected more than 900 homes along the Highway 93 and Highway 12 corridor as part of a detailed risk assessment.
“We labeled them as anything from non-defensible property to low- to very-defensible space, depending on fire conditions and everything in between,” Newman said. “I can’t give you specific addresses, but I know there were many in that area (in Macintosh Manor) that were deemed non-defensible.”
The general policy is to not put firefighters on non-defensible spaces. While he’s not certain what occurred on the mountain that day, Newman said the switchbacks on Rowan and Folsom roads, as well as the access, road width and grades, are all potential issues. There’s also only one way in and out of the upper stretches.
“Switchbacks basically allow a good chance for the fire to get below you, then fire likes to run uphill regardless of the wind direction,” Newman said. “Another issue up there is snags — standing dead trees, and with the wind, especially if they’ve been compromised by fire, that’s a concern.
He was at the base of the fire that night along Highway 93. As a chief, he directs firefighting, but isn’t allowed to participate. He said they had engines assigned to some of the structures initially, but they were “outgunned by Mother Nature.”
He understands that while people’s homes are important, firefighters' lives shouldn’t be threatened by protecting structures.
“There was only so much we could do,” Newman said. “But I speak for those in the engines who were up there. I had personal feedback following it for a couple days from the division group supervisors for the team. They told me our guys physically, literally saved homes up there.
“Unfortunately, we lost two, and that’s always tragic. You never want anybody to lose their home.”
Michelle and Dan Schurg agree that saving a home isn’t worth risking a person’s life, and they appreciate firefighting efforts elsewhere. But the events of Aug. 17 still had a profound impact on them.
Dan Schurg, dirty from the mop-up efforts they’re still undertaking more than three weeks later, noted that for 20 years, he helped area residents use “Firewise USA” techniques to reduce risks from wildfires.
“The first thing we did when we moved in here was Firewise our property,” Dan Schurg said, taking a sip from a can of beer. “I tell my clients ‘If you spend the money and take the time to Firewise your land, in the event a fire encroaches on your property, firefighters will make a stand because it’s defensible.’
“I feel betrayed because that didn’t happen.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Dan and Michelle Schurg.