Lincoln County wildfires: Conditions not seen “in almost 50 years,” official says at Libby public meeting

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Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage, left, speaks to a crowd of about 200 people dyring a public meeting at Libby High School Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3, 2017. The meeting addressed three wildfires facing Lincoln County. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

About 200 people attended a 4 p.m. Sunday public meeting in the Libby High School gymnasium, where officials discussed the status of three wildfires — Caribou, West Fork and Moose Creek — burning in Lincoln County.

“We have not seen conditions like these in almost 50 years,” said Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage, citing the dryness of fuels and uncommonly late-in-the-season fire activity.

Savage said firefighting resources are stretched thin due not only to more than 100 large fires being fought in Montana, but also because some state resources have been sent to Texas to help in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

He did express gratitude for the firefighting helicopter and planes that have been assigned to fight the West Fork and Caribou fires.

“We’re trying to do the best we can with limited resources,” Savage said, noting the importance of an incident management team coming in from the Rocky Mountain region and scheduled to be briefed on the West Fork fire 1 p.m. Monday.

Dan Rose, the Kootenai National Forest’s fire management officer, told the crowd that after a wet fall and snowy winter “the rain shut off” — since June 27, Libby has had only 3/100 of an inch of rain, he said.

Discussing the potential of the West Fork fire, Rose said “we have to think big.”

“We have the potential to see fire behavior as we have seen in the Caribou fire,” he said.

From Saturday to Sunday, the Caribou fire doubled in size to almost 14,000 acres. It moved 8 miles in two and a half days, Rose said, and has caused evacuations and destroyed an unknown amount of structures.

Faced with limited resources, Rose said tactical firefighting efforts for the West Fork fire are being focused on protecting private property.

“We feel fortunate to get the resources we can,” he said. “We’re up there on the priority list.”

Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe shared his office’s expectations for pre-evacuation notices and evacuations orders. The purpose of the former, he said, is to prepare to “be ready to go in under an hour” if an evacuation is ordered.

Bowe said over the past couple days the Sheriff’s Office ran into problems in the Caribou fire area where “not enough people took us seriously” when given pre-evacuation notices. As a result, some evacuations were so last-minute that “houses were burning 10 to 15 minutes after” people left.

“When we tell people to get ready, we mean get ready,” Bowe said.

For those who choose not to evacuate when ordered, Bowe said for people to stay on their own property “and no one else’s.” Again citing examples from Caribou fire, he said that some people who stayed behind were found to be in other people’s’ properties.

Bowe also reiterated a frustration he raised earlier in the day at a meeting among county officials and staff — that people were posting photos of burning homes to social media before authorities were able to notify the homeowners.

Toward the end of the public meeting, Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck praised the “fantastic” coordination among the various agencies and said that an emergency operations center was being activated in the city building by the Ponderosa Room and expected to be online Monday “to make sure to keep you as informed as possible.”

“Our No. 1 goal is public safety,” he said.

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