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

Rice Ridge: Wednesday Will Be 'One Of Most Challenging Days This Fire Season'

The Rice Ridge Fire public meeting in Ovando Tuesday
Nicky Ouellet
The Rice Ridge Fire public meeting in Ovando Tuesday

At last night’s public meeting on the Rice Ridge Fire in Ovando, John Thompson, the incident commander leading the charge against it, said Wednesday will be a big day.

"I'm gonna tell you straight up that tomorrow [Wed, 8/30] is probably going to be one of the most challenging days we have of this fire season," Thompson said.

He stood flanked by maps of the fire and evacuation zones posted to the garage doors of the Ovando Volunteer Fire Department. More than 100 people attended last night's fire briefing.

"It's supposed to be a series of thunderstorms that come in tomorrow," Thompson said, "and the thunderstorms bring pretty unpredictable winds."

It’s hard to imagine anything worse than Monday night on the Rice Ridge Fire. A shift in the wind carried embers across containment lines meant to separate the flames from the town of Seeley Lake. Thompson was in a helicopter filming the fire, and says that for every 10 embers that fell, eight grew roots. The run that ensued forced some 2,000 people to evacuate from the east side of Highway 83 Monday night, and put another 100 homes southeast of Seeley Lake on alert Tuesday afternoon. The challenge today will be anticipating erratic winds and holding containment lines.

A sign outside Seeley Lake Tuesday
Credit Nicky Ouellet
A sign outside Seeley Lake Tuesday

Residents in Seeley Lake are ardent in their support of the fire crews - many businesses have signs thanking the firefighters and pilots - but the constant uncertainty still bothers some folks, like Derek Tupper and his wife and pup, named Seeley.

"Just looking up, seeing all the haze…"

The Tuppers fled Seeley Lake Monday late night after the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office extended the evacuation zone.

"Just that constant stress, that constant tension of not knowing what's going to happen next, Derek says, "it's been that level of discomfort, for going on a month now."

Others are annoyed about a lack of communication and access to the latest information. Fred Valiton owns the Blackfoot Commercial Company in Ovando, about 30 miles southeast of Seeley Lake. It’s the only business open seven days a week.

"It's kind of a gathering point for information and such," Valiton said.

He says small towns like Ovando face extra challenges in natural disasters, because they’re so remote and there’s no cell service.

"Small town, news travels like wildfire, no pun intended," Valiton said. "I get calls all day long: 'What's going on? What's going on? And if i don't have anything to tell 'em, there's just nowhere to go."

Valiton says it’s a little better now that Thompson’s incident management team has set up a poster for the Rice Ridge Fire outside his shop that’s updated daily, and Thompson offered to host another public meeting in Ovando on Friday. He also had some encouraging news about today’s plans for building containment lines.

"Logging units that are 10-, 20-years-old have been slowing down fire spread. so wherever we have logging that occurred in the past, we've been able to capture the fire, get in there and work a lot easier," Thompson said.

That comment led some of the fire briefing attendees to ask under what circumstance they’d be allowed back into their homes. Thompson says that will depend on today’s fire activity, but people may be allowed access for an hour or two on Thursday or Friday.

But he says this fire is a long way from over, considering Monday night’s surprise activity

"I'm gonna be straight up with you, we were getting our butt kicked," Thompson said. "We had some fire activity in one corner, we thought we were getting ahead of it with our crews and engines and all those things out there. it threw some spots across the line, and it was off to the races, and race did it do."

They're hoping for a better day today.

"One of the decisions we've made is, we're not leaving Seeley Lake," Thompson said. "If Seeley Lake is imminently threatened by a wildfire, we will ride it out in camp as well.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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