Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Lolo Fire Team Leader Says Investigation Underway Into Destroyed Homes

Greg Poncin is Incident Commander on the Lolo Peak Fire.
Edward O'Brien
Greg Poncin is Incident Commander on the Lolo Peak Fire.

On Monday Lolo Peak Fire managers said their burnout operations on the Lolo Peak Fire "probably" led to the destruction of two homes and several outbuildings. Tuesday, they took a more circumspect approach.

Greg Poncin is Incident Commander on the Lolo Peak Fire. MTPR's Edward O'Brien spoke to Poncin Tuesday at his fire camp outside of Florence.

On Tuesday firefighters reported they’re making solid progress on the stubborn fire that’s now burned more than 32,000 acres. Highway 12 completely reopened Tuesday afternoon. Pilot cars are no longer necessary. More Bitterroot Valley residents who, days ago, were evacuated are now back home.
These are encouraging developments, but there have been rough patches and this fire is a long way from being buttoned up.

Greg Poncin is incident commander on the Lolo peak fire. MTPR's Edward O'Brien spoke to him Tuesday at his fire camp outside Florence.

Edward O'Brien: You read comments in various online forums and there are critics who say, 'why wasn't this thing snuffed out at 200 acres back in late July?'

Greg Poncin is Incident Commander on the Lolo Peak Fire.
Credit Edward O'Brien
Greg Poncin is Incident Commander on the Lolo Peak Fire.

Greg Poncin: The simple answer is no safety zones. It was a snag patch up there and purely a risk decision, on top of the fact that this fire was started the same day that 11 other fires were started.

And so you, know it was actually in the wilderness, higher elevation, and so this one was not, by virtue of the fuels that it was burning in in this location not put out. Not that it wasn't a full suppression event. But again, when we say firefighter and public safety is the most important, that's what the local forest did, is put those things first.

EO: That's the prime directive here, the Golden Rule.

GP: That's right.

EO: How we looking today, August 22?

GP: We're looking pretty good, relatively speaking. The fire lines that we put in are holding. We're making good progress trying to get folks back into their homes after the evacuation with those big runs on the, I think it was the 16th, and then again on the 19th.

We knew it was a matter of time before the fire would get up and do that. And everything we've done up to date has been in preparation for that. In that regard I think we're doing pretty well.

EO: Let's go back in time here to last Wednesday Thursday. A decision was made to start a backburn operation.

GP: So we knew that, well based on that large fire growth on the 16th I think that was probably Wednesday, that with the cold front predicted to come on Saturday, the lines that we put in, even though they were located well, were in a fuel type and topography where where we felt we could safely operate. Given that the fire was going to be coming at them driven by high winds, they needed to be improved. And so we did that using fire to lay along that line to essentially build what we sometimes refer to as a "catcher's mitt." We knew the fire was going to come in a fury at that line and that we had a lot of values behind that line. And so we worked hard to try and put some fire in there to buffer and make those lines more secure. And for two days we were largely successful with that.

EO: And again where exactly was that?

GP: Basically from the mouth of Mormon Creek in that kind of deep canyon right there just west of Lolo and then south along that face progressing for for several miles down to where the ski runs are.

EO: And things got a little intense?

GP: Things got a little intense in advance of the big cold front Saturday. It was a windy evening and night Friday, and we were out there trying to do the best we could to hang on to that line. We had our hands full.

EO: And in the end there were a couple of homes and several outbuildings that were lost.

GP: That's true. Yeah.

EO: What happened?

GP: Well we're currently doing a review to gather all of the facts about what happened and when, and at the end of that review we're going to make all of that information known.

EO: Is it too soon to say it was the direct result of the backburn?  

GP: You know until that review comes out, I'm not at liberty to say. But it will be coming out soon, and like I said, we're working on that right now.

EO: This next question I don't know how to ask it because the entire review is isn't done as you stated, but with every wildfire major incident like this there are armchair quarterbacks, people in the back of the class who like to throw spitballs and say firefighters should not be destroying the homes they're trying to protect.

GP: Fire is unpredictable in the sense that the amount of wind and the challenge of how dry these fuels are and the spotting that happens in these conditions. In other words, these firebrands that are blown by the winds and they travel, they can travel up to half a mile, and no width of fireline alone is going to prevent a fire from spreading. And so that's why we're needing to take these tactics. And, it's not the outcome that we want to have any loss of property or homes, but worse than that would be loss of life, and that's how we fight fire is based on these very deliberate objectives and measured approach.

EO: Who is conducting this investigation and what's the timeline?

GP: There's a special agent from the Forest Service, Morgan Dale, that will be conducting the investigation. He hasn't really said how long it's going to take because he doesn't know how much information yet is to be included in that. And so, as it comes available we'll certainly make that available.

EO: Regardless of the specific cause that's got to weigh heavily on the entire team I would assume.

GP: It does. I mean, that's what we're here for is to protect lives and property. And and we're doing the best we can. But I think it's important to remember that had we not done anything there were potentially several hundred homes that would have been directly impacted by that fire as it ran at the line Saturday, and that the outcome of that bigger wind event was actually pretty good. We had a minor slop over because of that larger wind event and we were able to go and pick it up with no loss of structures.

EO: Have you had a chance to speak with the property owners or no?

GP: I haven't directly, but the Missoula County Sheriff's Office has.

EO: That must have been an uncomfortable conversation I guess.

GP: I was told yes, but that they have been extremely gracious about that and they understand the situation and the efforts by the firefighters up there.

EO: OK, what is the plan? I understand things generally are looking pretty good. What is that south tail of this fire is still a little questionable given the weather that may be coming in.

GP: Yeah, so we've got a couple of good days of weather for firefighting and we're taking advantage of securing those lines that we have now. Thunderstorms predicted for Wednesday, Thursday that gives us a little concern. And right now, this fire on the south end will continue to progress south. That part of the fire is still very much a long term event. We're looking for opportunities locations and time to try and cut that spread off to the south. But, right now what we're expecting is that it's going to continue to go, and that we may see more evacuations as the fire moves south. But, that will be in a very measured manner and planned out.

EO: What sort of storms? Any wetting rain with these, do you think, or is it just dry lightning?

GP: They haven't really committed to us getting any precip out of this, just some lightning. And the real concern for us are the outflow winds associated with these thunderstorms and what that might do to the fire.

EO: Mr. Poncin how many years have you been working in this business either as a ground pounder or as the big cheese?

GP: Well, 37 years fighting fire. And this is my ninth year as the incident commander of this team.

EO: Are there ever any guarantees in this business?

GP: There aren't. This is a risky business and I try and surround myself with the very best and I feel good about that. I have tremendous confidence in my team and that we're going to keep people safe and we are going to protect property. And so with that I feel like we're in a pretty good place right now.

That was Greg Poncin who plans to hang up his boots at the end of this fire season and retire as the leader of the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
(406) 243-4065
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content