139 people assigned to West Fork fire as of Thursday; estimated size is 7,337 acres

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A few days after management of the West Fork fire was assumed by Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Blue Team, the number of personnel assigned to the fire had grown to 139, its acreage had increased to 7,337 and containment remained at zero percent, according to a Thursday morning fact sheet.

Meanwhile, Lincoln County officials had doubled the size of a fire-information phone bank and praised both the coordination of fire management and the collaboration of residents told by Commissioner Mark Peck to expect “a marathon, not a sprint” as the county faces four active wildfires — in addition to the West Fork, the Caribou, Moose Peak and Gibralter Ridge fires.

Wednesday night the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office ordered some residents near Libby to evacuate their homes by noon Thursday so fire crews could perform burnout operations, described as the lighting of a “low-intensity, backing fire along the dozer line behind the homes on Bobtail Ridge Road.”

Residents were told at a Wednesday evening meeting at Libby Christian Church that if all went according to plan they could return home possibly by Sunday. The evacuation areas included Kootenai River Road from Quartz Creek to end of Bighorn Terrace; the north side of Kootenai River Road from North Central to Quartz Creek; and Lower Bobtail, including Burrell and Indian Pipe.

“The purpose of the burnout (of vegetation) is to increase the buffer between the active fire and the residence in the area, allowing for quicker re-entry into the evacuation area,” a fact sheet states.

During the burnout operations, the Libby Volunteer Fire Department was expected to patrol the area in case fires appeared near homes.

The burnout was originally planned for Tuesday but postponed due to an increase in humidity. A burnout farther away from homes on Wednesday “was successfully completed to Lindy Peak,” a fact sheet states.

The burnout was monitored overnight and crews Thursday were expected to “monitor and hold what was burned.”

Earlier in the week evacuations were ordered for communities near 17 Mile Road and for Bobtail Road north of Hutton Drive/Bobtail Cutoff. Pre-evacuation notices remained in effect Thursday for Bobtail Cutoff, including Winter Road and Whitetail Road; and Pipe Creek Road from Forest Way, including Lodge Pole Road, Blue Mountain Lookout Road and Doak Creek Road.

A meeting for the community at large was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, again at Libby Christian Church. A meteorologist, operation Section Chief and the Incident Commander will all be on hand to brief the public.

The first community meeting held to discuss the West Fork fire took place 4 p.m. Sunday, hours after county and law enforcement officials held an “all-hands-on-deck meeting” to organize and plan a course of action.

One of the items to come out of the latter meeting was the directive to open an emergency operations center “to organize a central command and control facility for county personnel to carry out emergency preparedness and management activities due to the wildland fires,” according to Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully. The information center’s phone number is 406-293-6295 and phones are staffed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A steady message from county and fire officials has been a lack of resources due to fires being fought elsewhere in the state and in the nation, as well as resources being assigned to areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. As the arrive, fore officials reported Thursday that they would be used to improve Pipe Creek road as an indirect fireline.

“A dozer line has been identified to tie in Pipe Creek Road to the fire,” a fact sheet states. “The structure defense group will be preparing homes in the event of the fire becoming more active. Actions will include moving flammable materials away from the homes and installing sprinklers when supplies and crews arrive.”

Countywide, the fires have taxed the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, whose personnel have been kept busy contending with pre-evacuation notices and evacuation orders, often as late as 2 a.m. or later. Some relief may come soon however — Thursday morning, Sheriff Roby Bowe said he had activated the STAR Program, which puts out a call for any available law enforcement resources nationwide to come here to assist.

Earlier in the week, both the smoke and inversion “really did dampen” the effects of the West Fork fire from Monday to Tuesday, a Forest Service official said, but not enough to stop its advance.

“There’s a lot of fire (still) on the landscape and it will continue to grow,” said spokesperson Nate Gassmann.

When the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Blue Team arrived in town it established a fire camp in J. Neils Park in Libby, where it is staging personnel and resources as they arrive.

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