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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Alberton Area Fire Getting More Personnel, Equipment

Eric Whitney
John Thompson, incident commander for the West Fork Fish Creek Fire addresses a public meeting in Alberton Sunday

The U.S. Forest Service team leading the attack on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire southwest of Alberton had a public information meeting in Alberton last night, and more than 200 people came. So many people came, they had to open the big garage doors at the fire station to accommodate the crowd.Among those there were Sabrina Haines and Gilbert Gonzalez, who fled their house in the Fish Creek area on Thursday.

"It was raining embers, basically," Gonzalez said. "I collected a handful of them, and they were the size of like, 2 inches long, of just pieces of wood, falling from the sky, like rain. And that’s kind of scary, because you don’t know (if) any one of those things is going to set your house on fire."

They’ve been staying with Sabrina’s son in Missoula since they evacuated. Sabrina said they came to the meeting "just to generally understand how they feel about the fire, where it’s going, because we’ve been getting all our information from, what’s it called? InciWeb, which is very sketchy."

The fire managers who spoke last night said the approximately 12,000 acre fire was generally moving northeast, toward Interstate 90. They said the fire had been throwing embers forward and creating new fires, or spotting, a mile to a mile and a half ahead of the main fire on Friday, but that cooler, damper weather this weekend had slowed it down.

Fire Incident Commander John Thompson told the crowd that the fire is still zero percent contained, and that it’s going to take a while to beat it.

"Are we going to get around this whole fire this week? No way," Thompson said.

"Are we going to get around this whole fire in two weeks? Probably not. There's probably 20 to 25 miles of open fire perimeter on that  fire edge there."

But, Thompson said, his team was successful in getting more people and equipment sent to help them fight the fire.

"We kind of have a Pentagon for firefighting down at Boise, Idaho," Thompson said, "and they’re the ones that kind of control where everything goes. And we had to tell them our story and tell them that, hey, we burned down five structures last night. Hey, we evacuated 300 people last night, and we’ve got this many residences out in front of this, we’ve got an interstate, we’ve got a railroad, we’ve got a BPA power-line out in front of this fire. You need to send us some tools so that we can fight this fire, and they listened to us."

The five structures that burned Saturday night all belonged to the U.S. Forest Service. Thompson said none of the privately owned camps or cabins in the Clearwater Crossing area burned last night, nor did the footbridges across Fish Creek that allow access to the Great Burn proposed Wilderness area.

Thompson said that the additional help that arrived on the fire Sunday included another Hotshot crew, 12 fire engines and four bulldozers.

The damp weekend weather and additional resources are good news for people worried about their houses in the area, but Thompson reminded those at the meeting that fire behavior is unpredictable, and urged everyone to stay alert to changing weather conditions and updated public safety information.

At the end of the meeting, the crowd applauded the firefighting team. Evacuee Gilbert Gonzalez said he felt like he got useful information.

"For the most part, yes, absolutely, yeah,” Gonzalez said “It looks like they have their head together, and of course they’ve had experience doing this. And this is my first time, so I’ve got to trust them. I’ve got to have faith in them. So, hopefully everything will go well."

Gonzalez said he’s hoping to get a chance to go back to his home in the evacuation area quickly tomorrow, with an escort from the fire team, to grab some medications he and Haines left behind. He says he felt especially lucky to have family in the area he could stay with this weekend, since all the hotel rooms in Missoula were booked for the Grizzly football game and River City Roots Fest.

"So if there’s anybody listening out there, if you know that somebody’s been evacuated, please help them out,” Gonzalez pleaded. “Please help them out."

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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