REXFORD — The wildfire that ran roughshod through West Kootenai west of Eureka on Saturday evening wreaked havoc on Montana’s oldest Amish community.
“Everyone’s kind of in shock. We’re just kind of dazing around here,” Darinda Yoder said Tuesday from her family’s temporary home near Rexford across Lake Koocanusa.
The house and adjacent Kootenai Kraft and Grocery that Yoder and husband Dean own weren’t among the 10 homes burned by the Caribou fire when it came roaring down the mountain within three miles of Canada.
Those that did burn were on Wilderness Trail, Spring Creek Road and Rocky Mountain Trail, a mile or so to the west, said Yoder.
Thirty other outbuildings were destroyed in one of what Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe said were several multi-mile runs by the fire that nearly tripled in size to 19,070 acres over the Labor Day weekend. No other fire in this flame-infested summer in Montana has claimed so many structures. The Lodgepole Complex that ravished 270,000 acres in eastern Montana in July destroyed 31 structures.
Bowe said 187 West Kootenai residents were evacuated from the area north of Tooley Lake, a mile or so southeast of the Yoders’ store. The area south of the lake and Basin Creek is on evacuation warning. Roughly 300 people live in the area, the sheriff said.
Most of the Amish families evacuated from the West Kootenai area are staying with families in or near Rexford. Simon said a few are camping in recreational vehicles just down the road in the pre-evacuation area.
The Red Cross has set up a shelter and is serving meals at the First Church of God, 1295 Second Ave. E., in nearby Eureka, seven miles from Rexford and roughly 10 miles as the crow flies from the fire’s southeast edge. Pre-evacuation warnings remain in effect for the area’s first fire, Gibralter Ridge, which started seven miles east of Eureka.
The Lincoln County Sheriff's Facebook page said a fire information center is set up in Libby outside Rosauers next to the bagged ice chest.
The lightning-caused Caribou fire ignited miles to the west and had burned nearly 2,000 acres across the Canadian line by Monday. Firefighters were working Tuesday to establish a line as wide as a football field to protect the remaining structures in West Kootenai.
“It’s still dangerous in there,” said Don Simon, information officer for the Type II management team deployed on the fire.
The concern is that the fire, which struck from the southwest, is circling around the West Kootenai community. It was moving to the southeast on Tuesday afternoon.
“Basically what they’re worried about is if it flanks them and gets trapped in there, they’ll lose that community,” Simon said.
Yoder said the Amish families and their neighbors received pre-evacuation notices from Bowe’s officers Saturday morning. The feeling then was they would have until Sunday to get out.
It didn’t happen.
“We left at 6 (p.m. Saturday), and we were there too long. We should have left earlier. The fire came down so fast they almost didn’t get us out,” Yoder said.
She wishes now she hadn’t been there to see the flames rolling down across the mountain, a terrifying sight when they’re coming straight at you.
“I don’t think it would have affected me the way it is now if I’d not seen the fire,” she said.
Simon said the sheriff’s department escorted those who’d lost their homes into the area on Monday to see the damage. On Tuesday, other evacuees were allowed back from 7 to 11 a.m. to gather up things. Simon said the procedure would be repeated Wednesday if the fire allows.
“We went to get schoolbooks and school desks,” said Yoder.
The Yoders have two sons and a daughter at the Amish school, which has an enrollment this year of 27. School will resume in a barn near Rexford.
Even if the flames don’t get the standing structures, the smoke already has, Yoder said.
“The houses that are left are filled with smoke, with all the doors and windows shut. Everything will be smoke-damaged. I’m not sure what will be there when we get back.”