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

Florence Woman Awaits Answers After Losing Home To Lolo Peak Fire

"I don’t know where it was, but the other day I saw one of my mother’s silver cups," says Jackie Stermitz.

"I see a cup over there! Ohhh – I’d almost rather not see this stuff, to be honest, because it’s all broken up."

Jackie Stermitz spent seven years in her home that was built into the hillside in the upper reaches of the Macintosh Manor subdivision near Florence. On August 17, the raging Lolo Peak fire reduced it and a neighbor’s home to rubble.

"As you can see, it’s completely incinerated. There’s nothing in there," she says.

The day before she lost her home, the fire had grown rapidly, and the weather forecast said a windy, dry cold front was on the way, making conditions even more dangerous. That prompted fire officials to issue a mandatory evacuation order that night, Wednesday, August 16.

"My neighbor right across the gully, Becky, called me and said, 'Jackie, are you packing?' And I go, 'No, are we supposed to be?' She says 'Yeah, we’re being told to get out. They’re telling everyone to get out.' I said, 'You’re kidding! Nobody told me.'"

So Stermitz, who was there all alone with her four dogs, three cats and two birds, called her daughter in Missoula for help.

"And she rushed up here at about 50 miles an hour, ran into the house and said, 'Mom, the fire’s coming down the hill right now. You gotta get out.' From below, they could see it all. She was freaked. So we were just grabbing stuff."

They made it out of the house with all their animals, some pictures and a few articles of clothing. In the middle of the night they made a beeline for her brother’s house in Helena. That night, the fire would consume her house and another and some nearby outbuildings.

Jackie Stermitz with some of the remains from her home, which burned in the Lolo Peak Fire, August 17, 2017.
Credit Mike Albans
Jackie Stermitz with some of the remains from her home, which burned in the Lolo Peak Fire, August 17, 2017.

"It’s not the end of the world, but it certainly is a stark end to what you’ve known and then you have to turn around and go, ‘Whoa, now what?' This was not in my five-year plan,” Stermitz says.

A few days later, the public information officer on the Lolo Peak Fire at the time, Mike Cole, told KGVO radio’s Jon King the fire that burned those buildings was likely started by firefighters.

"That’s probably the case. That probably resulted from that second day of burnout operations we were doing. The fire probably got a little too intense and threw some embers across the line. That’s probably the logical assumption right there," Cole said.

But 24 hours later, the fire’s Incident Commander Greg Poncin tempered that conclusion. He would only say that the Forest Service is now conducting a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding that back-burn operation.

Last month, Poncin told Montana Public Radio that the back burn was necessary to strengthen existing containment lines in order to protect hundreds of homes.

"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."

At this point, homeowner Jackie Stermitz isn’t sure what to make of Poncin’s explanation.

"Someday I’ll understand this more, but I don’t know who to be pissed off at at the moment," Jackie Stermitz says of the loss of her home to the Lolo Peak Fire.
Credit Mike Albans
"Someday I’ll understand this more, but I don’t know who to be pissed off at at the moment," Jackie Stermitz says of the loss of her home to the Lolo Peak Fire.

"Someday I’ll understand this more, but I don’t know who to be pissed off at at the moment," she says. "When I find out, maybe I will be."

For now, she’s figuring out her life’s next big move. One thing she’s certain about: her family will not rebuild on Upper Folsom Road.

Some of her neighbors, though, are upset and criticize the decision to start a backburn operation under such dry and windy conditions.

Dick Mangan is forester and lifelong firefighter who has been an incident commander on big fires. He says there are no hard and fast answers when it comes to battling fire, especially under the kind of explosive conditions seen last month.

Mangan, a consultant, who owns the Missoula-based Blackbull Wildfire Services says fire bosses sometimes have a lot of tools to choose from. And sometimes they don’t.

"So you have to take and pick out something that may have a risk involved with it, but is also the best option that you have given the decision space that you have and the decision time that you have," Mangan says.

Back at her former home-site on Folsom Road,  Jackie Stermitz is sifting through the remains. She looks forward to reading the investigation into the chain of events that led to her property’s destruction last month.

"If this was mismanaged there has to be some accountability and there has to be change. If this does warrant a lawsuit it should go forward," Stermitz says.

Dick Mangan says it could take the government months to evaluate any potential complaint of wrongful action filed against the Forest Service. He says a lawsuit can only be filed if the government decides against validating a complaint.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from more Upper Folsom Road residents who witnessed the Lolo Peak Fire’s aggressive run toward their homes last month. They want the government to answer some difficult questions.

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.  
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