SEELEY LAKE — Just like 10 years ago, Seeley Lake sat in the crosshairs of Mother Nature’s big gun and didn’t blink.
On August 4, 2007, the Jocko Lakes fire ran to the western edge of town and stopped when a wind shift stalled it just short of Boy Scout Road. This Wednesday, the Rice Ridge fire sat primed to ride an overnight windstorm south down the Morrell Creek valley and straight up the Double Arrow Ranch subdivision. And then the forecasted wind didn’t come.
“Since the early ‘80s, I’ve been worried about Seeley Lake,” retired Lolo National Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels said during a visit to the incident command post at Seeley Lake Elementary School. “We knew if a fire starts here on the right day, Seeley Lake is gone. In 2007 it almost was. If that wind hadn’t changed and shifted to the east, and an initial attack crew from Alaska hadn’t stood there, with the wind at their backs, and was able to stop it.”
Dozens of Double Arrow homes were eerily vacant on Wednesday as another crew of Alaskan and Montanan firefighters perched on Wolverine Drive and watched a seemingly endless parade of aircraft shower the leading edge of the fire. Smoke plumes marked the southern fire perimeter from the spine of Rice Ridge, down across Morrell Creek and over to the base of Morrell Mountain, barely two miles north of Cottonwood Lakes Road.
Most of the airshow involved four water scoopers: a pair of single-engine Air Tractor 802s and a pair of much larger, twin-engine CL 415s. Roughly every five minutes, the carousel of planes roared into the valley, sprayed clouds of water and banked away to reload from Seeley Lake, which had been closed to recreation.
Intermittently, a sortie of retardant bombers would appear to draw thick red lines in the forest. They ranged from one of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation’s venerable P2-Vs (on its last season of firefighting) to 10 Tanker Air’s hulking DC-10, a converted jumbo jet.
“The retardant is more effective, because it stays on the ground longer,” said fire air operations manager Mike Kerrigan. “But if you have a lake right there, you can put significantly more water on the fire. Right now this is the No. 1 fire in the nation. But we’re still competing for everything. We have helicopters ordered that we can’t get filled.”
The whole airshow got briefly grounded around 11 a.m. Wednesday when a tourist at a gas station decided to fly his radio-controlled drone copter in the parking lot. A local resident spotted the drone and reported it to U.S. Forest Service officers, who were able to find and arrest the man.
“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has gotten really serious about that,” Rice Ridge public information officer Mark DeGregorio said. “It doesn’t just stay with us in our little fire world. It goes straight to the FAA. A guy they busted for flying a drone in Arizona is getting a really hefty fine.”
Nevertheless, the steady soaking made a noticeable difference in the fire progression. And more significantly, the sturdy east wind that woke Missoulians early Wednesday morning failed to arrive in Seeley Lake. By Wednesday evening, the Rice Ridge fire measured 6,857 acres and had 150 firefighters assigned. A new Type II incident command crew took over management of the fire on Wednesday afternoon, with plans for increased coordination with firefighters combatting the 3,220-acre Liberty fire burning toward the old Jocko Lake fire scar.
“Last night it had come over the hill and everyone could see it,” said Seeley Lake resident Loren Rose, who lives near the Seeley Lake airfield just south of the fire front. “They hit that really hard, laid it right down. An east wind would be bad for us in our situation. It would probably be good for the Liberty fire, because it would blow it back up away from Placid Lake. But then we’d get the smoke from the fires over by Lincoln.”