Heat, a red flag wind warning, atmospheric instability and prolonged dry conditions meant there was only one thing certain about Sunday for Lolo Peak fire public information officer Larry Bickel.
“Today is a day for fire.”
On Sunday morning, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office implemented evacuation orders for residents threatened by the fire. Roughly 200 homes — those west of Highway 93 from the north side of Bass Creek Road to the south side of Hannaford Avenue and west of Florence Carlton Loop — received visits from a deputy telling them it was time to go.
National Guard members were stationed at the roads leading into each of the evacuation zones. By mid-afternoon, the sheriff’s office decided that fire conditions were too unsafe to allow anyone back in, with the hope of allowing escorted access Monday if conditions improve.
Evacuation warnings were also expanded to include residents south of Bass Creek Road and west of Highway 93 to South Kootenai Creek Road.
“There’s a lot of concerned people out here today. A lot of people wondering what is going to happen next,” Bickel said.
Julie Roberson and her 7-year-old son Nathan — who live in the Kootenai drainage — joined the small group gathered around the fire information trailer in the parking lot of the Super 1 grocery store in Stevensville.
She said she didn’t get internet at her home, but on Sunday started getting text messages from friends asking if she was being evacuated.
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“I’m just here to double-check if I’m in a warning area or not because I have horses. I’m ready to go if I need to,” Roberson said.
Roberson said the thing that worried her most about the possibility of being told she needs to leave her home was what to do with her animals. She’s already taken a black marker and written her phone number on the hooves of her horses.
“What if someone comes knocking at your door and says it’s time to go? I’m just going to have to let them loose and hope.”
Sonya Germann, incident information officer, said there was no one particular danger from the Lolo Peak fire. The blaze had pushed over containment lines on the northwest edge and reached the backup contingency lines, and firefighters didn't have a full picture of just how far it had spread in that direction.
A cold front coming down from the north throughout the day had the potential to draw the southwestern tip of the fire eastward, which could mean the blaze racing down one of the drainages toward homes and the highway.
High winds raised the danger of embers being carried from inside the fire lines to the newly evacuated zones, creating spot fires that would be beyond the containment lines. Patrols were busy looking for new spotting, and structure protection teams were in place in the evacuated drainages along the highway to snuff out anything that sparked.
“It’s really, unfortunately, an all-of-the-above problem,” Germann said.
John Barnes, a retired deputy, got a call from Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton on Sunday morning, telling Barnes they needed all the help they could get. Barnes manned the check-in trailer for evacuees throughout the day, helping people like Whitney McBeth of the Sweeney Creek area fill out the form letting the sheriff’s office know she had gotten out safe.
This was the second time in as many weeks that a deputy had shown up on her doorstep, knocked and told her the time had come to leave, McBeth said.
“We actually laughed about it a bit. I just said 'same routine?' and he said, 'Yep,'” she said.