With lightning flashing all around, thunder claps shaking the window panes and the smell of smoke in the air, Wendy Morris got out of bed late Sunday night to see what was going on outside her home at the very end of Oral Zumwalt Road.
She knew something wasn’t quite right when she saw her family’s six horses bunched up by the gate in the lower pasture closest to the Bitterroot River, acting uneasy and wanting out.
As she and her husband, Bart, were coming back from checking on the horses – dressed only in their pajamas – fire engines began arriving and lining up on the narrow road in the remote Upper Miller Creek neighborhood.
Then, around 10:30 p.m., came the Missoula County sheriff, who was going door-to-door explaining there was a fast-moving grass fire on the other side of a nearby ridge and fire officials determined it was prudent to evacuate.
About the same time, a neighbor called Joe Lustik who lives on Evans Ridge and gave him a head’s up – a wildfire and an evacuation order were on their way.
Lustik said he decided to take a walk up his driveway and see for himself what all the commotion was about.
“That’s when I noticed the glow and the lightning flashing all around us,” Lustik said.
Having just returned from a weekend in Wyoming with his wife, the couple was already packed and ready to go.
When Sheriff Carl Ibsen came calling at 11:30 p.m., the Lustiks quickly filled a box with their important financial and household papers and left to spend the night in a Missoula hotel.
“The decision of what to take and not to take ends up being pretty easy,” Lustik said.
“We have a four-horse trailer and six horses, so we hauled them to a friend’s place around 11 p.m.,” Morris said. “We were mostly worried about them. But we decided to not evacuate.”
Once firefighters found their way around pastures and the winding access roads in the dark, fighting the lightning-strike blaze became intense, Morris said.
What started as a spark and sizzled about three acres around 9 p.m. south and east of Trail’s End Road, had quickly become a 50-acre inferno on the move that torched 161 acres by daylight Monday.
Pushed by winds of 30-40 mph, authorities were concerned that a shift to the west would put Morris and her neighbors in harm’s way, said Cindy Super, fire information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources.
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“With just a single-lane road through the neighborhood, and one way out, we wanted to minimize the panic and chaos that happens when a wildfire is bearing down,” Super said. “That’s why there was an evacuation order. When there is a threat of danger, we want people to leave the area and to leave calmly,” she said. “We didn’t have that opportunity in Lolo just a few weeks ago.”
Because of fast-acting DNRC and area rural fire crews, the Upper Miller Creek Fire stayed in an area about a mile from the closest homes and structures, and burned mostly dry grasses and some timber.
On Monday, two DNRC helicopters were busy dumping water on hotspots, and fire crews, including the Helena and Bitterroot hotshots were on the ground working to contain the fire.
An inmate fire crew from the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge was also pitching in to mop up the northwest perimeter of the fire, which is closest to homes.
By mid-morning Monday, the evacuation order for the 60-some residents on Oral Zumwalt Way and the Upper Trail’s End Road had been lifted.
Pat and Charles Culver, who had their vehicles packed and ready to move at a moment’s notice weren’t quite ready to unpack.
“I’m on alert, just in case,” said Pat Culver. “I’ve got the truck and trailer ready to move and the dogs and their kennels ready to go if we have to.”
Through all the drama of the evening before, Culver said she was impressed with the firefighting efforts and felt safe given the situation.
“It was pretty amazing to see all the yellow flags hanging from peoples mailboxes and driveways and to see that there is a system in place that is used for law enforcement and firefighters to know who has been contacted about the fire,” Morris said. “It makes you feel good about that.”
By Monday evening, the fire was 30 percent contained.
That no homes or people were injured in the wildfire is a credit to the emergency responders and firefighters, Super said.
“It was a great initial attack response,” Super said. “This was another fast-moving grass fire and another example of why, if you live in Montana, you need to be prepared for wildfire.”