OVANDO — North into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, south toward Kozy Korner, but mostly east, the Rice Ridge fire is out of control.
The fire that started six weeks ago six miles north of Seeley Lake is now a solid scar of char for 25 miles. Maybe farther.
It jumped from 40,000 acres to more than 100,000 over the weekend, and incident commander John Thompson said at the rate and direction it’s traveling, it could eventually bypass the Arrastra Creek fire to the west of Lincoln and bump into the Alice Creek fire that’s up and over the Continental Divide.
“We were fairly confident last night with the weather we’d heard that it was supposed to be a fairly calm night,” said Wayne Slaght, who manages the 21,000-acre Two Creek Monture Ranch north of town that in December received the Montana Stockgrowers Association’s 2017 Stewardship Award.
Well after midnight Monday, a time of good night when a good fire is expected to behave itself, Slaght looked up to see tree-topping flames, lapping at two homes on the north end of the ranch.
“The wind picked up somewhere and things went to hell in a hurry,” Slaght said.
A bulldozer on loan from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helped save the homes and kept the fire on forest land.
“Of course, nobody’s fighting fire at 3:30 in the morning, so it was a little lonely out there,” said Jim Stone of the Ovando Volunteer Fire Department.
It kept intact the remarkable if tenuous record of no homes burned yet by the largest active fire in Montana.
A mandatory evacuation order was placed Sunday on all of the Coopers Lake area to the northeast of Ovando, at the head of Kleinschmidt Flat. The fire was still in the mountains several miles to the north but spreading unpredictably.
Powell County Sheriff Scott Howard has placed under evacuation warning everything north of Highway 200 for the 30 miles from the Missoula County line at Greenough to the Lewis and Clark County line several miles west of Lincoln.
Thompson noted that for the last week, or since the day much of the town of Seeley Lake was evacuated, thousands of acres have been burning each day.
“It was not unusual to have 2,000- or 3,000-acre days, and I think we had a 5,000-acre day,” Thompson said.
Sunday morning, when he walked into the situation tent, he learned the fire had gained 12,000 acres. When he did the same on Monday, he ventured a guess.
“They’re shaking their heads.”
Not even close.
Infrared mapping at 10:45 p.m. Sunday – hours before Slaght’s close call on the Two Creek Ranch – showed another 50,000 acres had gone up in smoke.
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“Now we’re thinking it was probably closer to 70 (thousand) because of when the mapping was done,” Thompson said.
Such overnight growth has been one of the most challenging pieces of the fire season, he added.
“The burn window is really late. Normally we would see an increase of activity during the day but we’re seeing it increase late in the day,” he said. “Last night the fire didn’t die down until 4 a.m.”
About 100 firefighters have night shift on a fire that’s become a 24-hour-a-day chore. A “swing shift” attacks whenever the time is right, day or night. A burnout from 8:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. last week held the critical line north of Cottonwood Lakes Road east of Seeley Lake.
“We’ve been doing really good holding the back door of Seeley Lake for a good period of time now,” Thompson said.
But the evacuation order remains because of what he called "unprecedented conditions."
"We've been real reluctant to let the people of Seeley Lake back in because if we get a spot and we don't have a firefighter on it this moment in time, it'll probably be a quarter of an acre to an acre in 15 minutes," Thompson said. "I'd hate to say how many collective years of fire experience are on our team, but we're all just scratching our heads because nothing's working. Things we'd think normally would work aren't working the way they should."
Bill Massee lives in the evacuation zone near the White Tail Ranch and pastures 105 cow-calf pairs for Jay and Camille Coughlin of Helmville.
“We moved a bunch of cows this morning onto a pivot field of mine, and we moved some yesterday in there too,” Massee said. “The cows are still in the evacuation area, but they let us move them onto the pivot to kind of get them out of harm’s way a little bit. We’re hoping anyway.”
Among the surviving structures is the Monture Guard Station, to the north of Slaght’s ranch and eight miles from Ovando. Thanks to structure protection efforts the cabin, recently restored to its 1930s ranger station grandeur, emerged unscathed, as did several outbuildings.
“Some of the corrals burned a little bit and we lost two portable toilets,” reported Thompson, whose Central Montana team will turn over the fire to Greg Poncin’s Type I Northern Rockies incident management team at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
The Rice Ridge fire spent a fleeting day (Sunday) at the top of the national priority list. Caribou and Gibraltar Ridge, fires on the Kootenai National Forest in Northwestern Montana, supplanted it after an unknown number of structures were lost.
“To be 100 percent honest with you, (the No. 1 priority) really isn’t buying you anything in Montana this year,” Thompson said. “There are fires in California that have more resources than we have in the entire Northern Rockies because they just have more stuff, and it’s in their geographic area and possession is ten-tenths of the law. Not even nine-tenths.
“What we’ve been told is build your plan based on what you have because you probably won’t get any more.”
Massee said he’s spent quite a few days watching the Rice Ridge fire to the west and choking on the smoke of the Arrastra Creek fire beyond Huckleberry Pass to the east.
A new start between the two fires a few nights ago sent up a plume of smoke not far from the North Fork of the Blackfoot trailhead. By Monday word was that the Rice Ridge fire had skirted over the ridges from Monture and gobbled it up.
“I’m more worried about the Arrastra Creek fire myself," Massee said. "All we’ve got to have is a good east wind for a little while, and it’s going to burn down off that mountain” toward Kleinschmidt Flat.