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

Fire Managers Explain Their Actions Near Essex

A squad of fire managers briefed about 50 people in Essex about the Paola Ridge and other area fires August 23
A squad of fire managers briefed about 50 people in Essex about the Paola Ridge and other area fires August 23

Fire managers on the Paola Ridge Fire outside Essex met with homeowners, some under pre-evacuation warnings last night.

John Pierson’s Type 1 Incident Management Team was the only one in the country not already assigned to a fire when the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park put in an order to help manage fires in the area after a dry thunderstorm sparked multiple fires August 11.

Pierson says the plan for Paola Ridge, like the other three fires he’s overseeing, is to fight the fire indirectly, due to inherent risks in terrain and limited availability of heavy equipment and aircraft.

"You all live in beautiful country," Pierson said. "The mountains are steep. The trees are thick. But that creates inherent hazards for us to engage directly on the fireline."

Pierson and a squad of fire, public health and safety managers spoke with about 50 homeowners at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex Thursday night.

National Weather Service Meterologist Bob Tobin said an incoming cold front will likely carry gusty ridgetop winds today and potential thunderstorms Saturday. But he adds another system carrying moisture will arrive Sunday night.

"Right now it's looking like we could get right around a quarter of an inch of rain on Sunday night and Monday across the whole area," Tobin said. 

During a Q&A, members of the public thanked the firefighters but questioned why the Forest Service didn’t drop water or retardant when the fire was first spotted.

Incident Commander Pierson, who hadn’t yet arrived in the Flathead, said multiple lightning strikes ignited fires on August 11. Aircraft and initial attack teams weren’t available to hit all of them.

"They were successful at putting out many more fires than the four that were remaining with that," Pierson said.

Fire managers said local private logging crews are helping the firefighting effort, and BNSF Railway is staging three water tankers on tracks nearby as part of the response plan.

Others in the crowd noted that fire has moved through this area frequently in the past several years, most notably in 2015 when the Sheep Fire forced Essex to evacuate. A man asked why the Flathead National Forest hadn’t done more logging in the area to proactively manage wildfires.

Forest Superintendent Chip Weber said the Forest just completed two fuels mitigation projects around Essex, and that those projects have helped slow the fire’s growth toward people’s homes.

"Our forest is zoned and there's some places we don't do that kind of work," Weber said. "We try to do as much of it in what's called the wildland urban interface as possible. That's where our focus is. That includes the lands you're seeing here."

Fire managers said people in the area should expect some movement on the Paola Ridge Fire, but not rapid growth.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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