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

Update From Seeley Lake Where Evacuation Orders Cover 1,100 Homes

A sign seen in Seeley Lake, MT August 29, 2017.
Nicky Ouellet
A sign seen in Seeley Lake, MT August 29, 2017.

Last night, the Rice Ridge Fire grew 3,000 acres and forced evacuation orders for 1,100 homes in and around Seeley Lake. We sent reporter Nicky Ouellet to Seeley Lake to see the situation on the ground.

Eric Whitney: Nicky Ouellet, you spent the afternoon in Seeley Lake, where are you right now and what are you seeing?

Nicky Ouellet: I’m sitting outside of Rivero’s Ace Hardware on Highway 83, which is the main strip in Seeley Lake. For a popular summer vacation town, the town is pretty empty. Most businesses are still open but the only people around are firefighters, the Montana National Guard, some locals and small handful of tourists.

EW: What are you hearing about last night when the fire picked up?

NO: Well I talked to John Thompson, he’s the incident commander on the fire. He was up in helicopter flying recon and taking some video footage to post to social media when the wind changed direction and started fanning the fire.

"You had a main body of fire and then out 100, 200 feet from that you would get another new fire propogate, and then they would build together. That's what happened last night. we had an increase in activity, it was near line, the line we were trying to hold. It just spotted over line and kept moving. And then it started getting aligned with some wind and that's when it started making the push. That's when we made a decision that we need to make some evacuations here in Seeley Lake," Thompson said.

EW: It sounds like it was a pretty sudden shift.

NO: Yeah. Pam Rose watched the whole thing from her quilt shop on Highway 83 just south of downtown.

"It was just big. So we knew that when it burning down in there -- and it was burning black, I mean a big smoke plume that was black -- so we would stand out here and watch it."

A Montana National Guard Humvee, part of the firefighting efforts on the Rice Ridge Fire in Seeley Lake, August 29, 2017.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
A Montana National Guard Humvee, part of the firefighting efforts on the Rice Ridge Fire in Seeley Lake, August 29, 2017.

NO: She lives in the evacuation zone, and sure enough by the time she got home from work she was getting calls from Smart 911, which the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office uses to send automatic evacuation calls, and an hour later she’d packed up an overnight bag and her favorite quilting projects to stay with a friend in a safe part of town.

EW: So people are still in Seeley Lake, then.

NO: Yes.

The evacuation zone covers most parts of the town east of Highway 83. That’s about 1,100 homes. It seems like many of the people in the evacuation zone were able to stay with friends and family in other parts of town here. There’s a parking lot on the south side of town that’s opened up for campers. Some people did stay in their homes despite the mandatory order from the sheriff’s office.

I learned from Glen Morin, who owns an automotive service on the main strip, that a lot of people need to stick around for work. I asked if he'd thought about leaving.

"Can't. I've got a business to run. And everybody else wants to make a little bit of money too. Nobody's giving anybody else free money, so we're staying here working, " Morin said.

NO: Glen’s shop has actually been servicing a lot of the firefighters’ trucks. They had a big blue Chevy up on the jack when I caught him, and some signs that say “Thank you fire crew and pilots.”

EW: But some businesses are closing?

NO: Yes. The Post Office is closed. People will need to pick up their mail at the Milltown Post Office until further notice. And Seeley Swan High School and Seeley Lake Elementary School are both closed because the buildings are in the evacuation zone. The Superintendent is expected to make a call this weekend whether to open school next week or the week after.

EW: What’s the outlook for tonight?

NO: John Thompson, the incident commander, says they couldn't get rolling with air support until late this morning due to smoke cover.

"Luckily a lot of the fire is above it [smoke] but it's still, it's a real challenge because you can't get eyes on what you need to see. And so we weren't able to fly today until 11:30, 12 o'clock. It's finally clear enough that we can get a helicopter safely from lake to the fire. And that's kind of the key thing, is that they have to have the visibility that they can see the lake and see the fire's edge so that they can safely navigate," Thompson says

NO: The fire is now only a quarter mile away from a handful of outbuildings and at least one residence, but that also means it’s working through mellower terrain. Thompson says that’s a good thing.

"We're going to get out of the steeper slopes and we’re going to get into the more gentle, moderate terrain, and we can fight fire a lot easier in that moderate terrain. We can get the equipment in there easier, we can get trucks, firefighter. When we're negotiating steep slopes it's just really hard all around because there's the slope effect that helps perpetuate the fire spread as well."

NO: Thompson says they’re trying to run three shifts overnight to hold areas where a perimeter line is already set, and there’s a few priority areas around fire’s western edge near Seeley Lake they’re focusing on.

EO: Nicky Ouellet in Seeley Lake. Thank You.

There's a community meeting about the Rice Ridge fire in Ovando that starts at 7 p.m. at the Ovando VFD.

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