Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Tim Leeds 

Hi-Line Living: East Fork Fire

A disaster of historic proportions in the Bear Paws


September 29, 2017

Havre Daily News / Floyd Brandt

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the East Fork Fire. Watch next Friday's Hi-Line Living for more on what people went through during the fire and what they are doing to recoup. Also watch for articles Wednesday on the agriculture page and in the October Farm and Ranch special section about recovering rangelands and resources to help in the process of healing the Bear Paw Mountains after the fire damage.

What a state official described as a disaster of historic proportions for this area is not over, though most of the fire is out and cleanup is underway, but the East Fork Fire brought an unheard of level of activity and national attention to this part of north-central Montana.

The fire started in the middle of the Bear Paw Mountains the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 27. After three days of firefighters seeming to have it nearly under control, the fire kept switching directions and expanding until on Wednesday, Aug. 30, it exploded in several different directions.

By the time the fire was declared 100 percent contained, Sept. 16, it had burned 21,896 acres, burned five cabins and and outbuildings in Beaver Creek Park and destroyed thousands of acres of trees, pastures and hay land and miles of fence and tons of hay.

But, miraculously, no deaths were reported and few injuries. Little additional property damage was reported, with ranch houses and buildings and hundreds more cabins and outbuildings on the park surviving the fire.

The community came together immediately, with people living in the mountains joining with teams from the reservation, local fire departments and volunteers from miles away to fight the fire while people and businesses loaned or donated equipment and supplies to fight the fire and to help provide for the firefighters. The state almost immediately sent in a team to manage the fire, and eventually, the federal government sent one of its top-level fire teams to manage the effort and help fight the fire.

A fire of historic proportions

Incident commander Don Pyrah of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, who was at the scene by Aug. 28, said conditions combined to create a fire of proportions probably not seen in modern history in the Bear Paws.

Pyrah described a situation like a perfect storm. The vegetation in the mountains was tinder-dry, terrain made fighting the fire incredibly difficult, the gusty winds were constantly changing direction, communication was difficult through both lack of personnel and equipment and lack of cellphone service. Coordinating and organizing efforts was difficult in the first days of the fire, he said.

Some have said that DNRC did a poor job managing the fire in the first days.

Pyrah said the problem was more the lack of people to manage - he immediately requested a team to come work on the incident management team but with resources stretched thin in the state and throughout the country fighting other fires, received little of which he had requested - and the unpredictable action of the fire.

A member of the federal incident command team complimented the actions of all the residents, volunteers and firefighters in fighting the fire, saying their work was outstanding especially because it is likely that none of them had ever seen a fire like the East Fork Fire.

Pyrah will be at an after action review at the Chinook Fire Station at 1201 Illinois St. 7 p.m. Monday. Landowners, fire departments, Rocky Boy Forestry and neighbors who helped fight the fire are invited to come and discuss "What went well this time, and how can we improve our efforts for the next challenge?"

A fire that wouldn't quit

The fire started about 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, near the East Fork Reservoir on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Firefighters seemed to be getting some control the first day, but the East Fork Fire expanded again Aug. 28. That day, firefighters seemed to have some success again, with residents of the mountains near Warrick where the fire had expanded saying it seemed to be under better control. But later, the fire grew again.Tuesday, the county started closing the road in the southern part of Beaver Creek Park and restricting access in that region.

By Wednesday, Aug. 30, an emergency operations center for the fire reported the fire had grown to 8,000 acres with zero percent containment. Active fires were shown at that point on Sucker Creek and Little Box Elder Creek and west of the original starting point in the Parker School region of Rocky Boy. People were helping ranchers move stock away from the fire, and local residents away from the fire also were helping the firefighters and organizing supply drives for the firefighters.

The fire continued to explode, expanding to 11,000 acres by noon. Conditions remained dry and windy with low humidity, and the highway south of Havre into Beaver Creek Park had been closed to all but emergency traffic and evacuation orders were in effect in the area of the fire.

A warning was put in effect for residents on Bullhook Road that runs south of Havre into the mountains as the fire continued to jump fire lines in the Sucker Creek and Little Box Elder Creek drainages. Additional resources continued to arrive, but the fire continued to grow.

Then by 2 p.m. the EOC said the fire, which remained at about 15,000 acres, had stopped pushing as aggressively north and was then burning faster into Clear Creek Drainage to the east.

By Sept. 1 the EOC reported the fire was at more than 20,000 acres and was pushing into Blaine County in Clear Creek Drainage, burning to west of Clear Creek Road and as far south as the Hungry Hollow-Clear Creek Road intersection. A federal top-level type 1 incident management team was being dispatched to the fire. While other fires were burning in Montana and several other western states, the East Fork Fire had reached the eighth-highest priority as a disaster in the nation at one point.

The type 1 team arrived Sept. 2 and began working to organize and coordinate efforts to fight the fire, along with its own teams of firefighters working on the blaze. The team had more than 50 people whose jobs were to coordinate activities and run operations of the command center.

By Tuesday, Sept. 6, the fire was declared 85 percent contained and had gone from the eigth-highest priority the day before to 18th-highest priority.

By Sept. 8, the type 1 command team had turned the operation over to the local type 3 team with the fire listed as 90 percent contained at 21,518 acres.

But the fire was not yet over.

Friday, Sept. 9, it again flared up, this time near the intersection of Clear Creek and Sucker Creek roads. Personnel immediately mobilized and contained the flare up by that evening, but not before it burned close to another 400 acres.

The following week turned cooler and the region started to receive some of the only rain it had seen in several months. Different locations in the Bear Paws reported receiving from just less than an inch to up to two inches of rain.

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

The incident command declared the fire 100 percent contained at 21,896 acres that weekend, on Sept. 16. It turned command of the fire over to the local county and Rocky Boy governments Sept. 18, although in some places, including where root systems had burned several feet into the ground, hot spots are likely to remain until significant snowfall.

All evacuations and closures were done by that point, although people were warned to continue to watch for hot spots, firefighters and heavy equipment.

The efforts then started to turn to recovering, with people volunteering to help landowners rebuild fences and do other work to recover from the fire and fundraising activities to support the firefighters, landowners and recovery efforts continuing.

The work to recover from the fire continues and will continue for weeks, months and even years.


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