’This is our Harvey,’ commissioner says of wildfires facing Lincoln County

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News of progress on each of the most threatening wildfires facing Lincoln County has been positive the past couple days — the Caribou’s two straight days of slow growth, the doubling of personnel assigned to the West Fork fire, the assignment of any personnel to the Moose Peak, not to mention the assumption of command by a crack incident management team out of the Rocky Mountains.

But the challenges the county and its residents face have just begun.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck.

Peck and fellow commissioners Jerry Bennett and Mike Cole had just wrapped up a weekly Wednesday meeting of the County Commission that was all but cancelled so they can focus their efforts on the wildfires. They approved county and school budget items and meeting minutes, and that was it.

“Right now weather is our friend,” Cole said, referring to the smoke and inversion that a Forest Service official has said served to dampen the effects of the fires. “Everyday like this you gain a little bit of fireline.”

But a weather forecast calls for warmer and drier conditions through Thursday and an “increase (in the) instability of the atmosphere,” according to an InciWeb incident information web page for the West Fork fire.

There’s talk of what will happen when the next lightning storms pass through.

“If we get another lightning event, it could be anywhere,” Bennett said.

All three fires — plus the Gibralter Ridge fire east of Eureka, which Cole said has been holding steady — were caused by lightning, and Bennett’s point was that people should not rest easy if they don’t live near an area that has been given notice to prepare for evacuation or ordered to evacuate.

“Just because you’re living in the middle of Libby doesn’t mean you’re out of danger,” Peck said. “This (fire situation) is resource and weather driven, and right now none of it is working in our favor.”

Firefighting teams “are just strapped” for resources, Peck said, adding it’s not solely a Lincoln County issue. “Sanders County is in worse shape,” he said, and many other parts of the country have been battling wildfires longer.

“Unfortunately we’re the last one to blow up and all the resources are already committed,” Peck said. “Everybody is trying to prioritize and get stuff in here.”

Resources include people in addition to equipment. Peck said part of the equation is what is called “overhead,” or the people needed to manage firefighting efforts.

“Until you have that you can’t put dozers” and other equipment to work, Peck said. “But right now everybody is doing the best they can do. The main thing is, the coordination is excellent.”

There is another resource to consider, Bennet said.

“We need to be a community,” he said, asking that able-bodied people prepare not only for themselves and their families but also for any neighbors who need assistance.

“It’s just heartwarming to see the cooperation,” said Cole, whose community, Eureka, has been contending with the Gibralter Ridge fire and helping one another persevere since Aug. 7.

Lincoln County kicked into high gear Sunday, when “all hands on deck” meetings in Eureka and Libby were connected by video-conference and marching orders given. One of the first things established after it was an emergency operations center off the Ponderosa Room at 952 East Spruce St. in Libby. Rotating shifts of county employees staff the phones there from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and are the “best source of accurate information,” Peck said. The number is 406-293-6295.

“People need to be vigilant, to listen and to pay attention,” he said. “This is unprecedented, this isn’t a normal disaster.”

“This is our (Hurricane) Harvey,” he said.

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