WEST KOOTENAI — It started with a bolt of lightning and a wisp of smoke deep in the wilderness. It ended up becoming a “firestorm.”
The Caribou Fire was first reported near Robinson Mountain on Aug. 11 at just 50 acres. Wind was fanning the flames, but with resources stretched thin across the region, firefighters could do little more than drop an occasional bucket of water from the air and monitor the situation.
By Aug. 24, the fire had grown to 520 acres. A week later, it had burned 2,600 acres, and on Aug. 30 it doubled in size. By Saturday, Sept. 2, the fire had torched 6,700 acres and was knocking on the doorstep of West Kootenai, a small community on the west side of Lake Koocanusa mostly populated by Amish and retirees. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued evacuation warnings to residents. Sam DesJardin got the news at about 8 a.m., just before he left for work in Eureka. He took his dogs with him into town, in case he wasn’t able to go home that night.
Farther up the road, 15-year-old Eric Yutzy was helping a friend move valuables out of his home. Late that afternoon, a Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy pulled up and said the fire was making a run east and they had 30 minutes to get out. As Yutzy and his friend frantically filled up a pickup truck with possessions, the smoke-filled sky grew darker.
“You could hear the roar of the fire,” Yutzy said. “It sounded like a jet engine.”
Soon after, the Caribou Fire roared out of the forest and into West Kootenai, destroying at least 40 structures, including 10 homes.
“It was an extraordinary windstorm that Saturday,” said Yutzy’s father Gideon. “It was a literal firestorm. There was no stopping it.”
Gideon said the fire was so hot in some homes that it melted wood stoves down to scrap metal. Three days later, Gideon was moving sprinklers around his home and keeping a close eye on the smoky sky to the west. Gideon’s home is in the pre-evacuation zone, and although he hasn’t been ordered to leave, his wife and most of his children are staying with friends and family in Eureka.
“The kids saw the wall of flames, and that can be pretty traumatizing for a young kid, so they’re staying elsewhere,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to be scared in their own home.”
Gideon said his community is thankful that no one was killed and hopeful that rain will soon douse the fires. But there is also frustration with how the fire was initially handled.
“There is a lot of frustration,” he said. “We understand that resources are thin, but it would have been nice if they could have dealt with it when it was just 50 acres.”
The Caribou Fire is one of three major blazes impacting Lincoln County in what Commissioner Mark Peck called an “unprecedented” fire season. While Lincoln County has had big fires before, Peck said he couldn’t remember a time when there were so many large fires so close to people’s homes. East of Eureka, the Gibralter Fire forced the evacuation of a few dozen homes in August, and although those residents have been able to go home, they are still on edge. Near Libby, the West Fork Fire has also prompted evacuations.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we got,” Peck said. “But I’m proud as hell of the people in this county for stepping up and helping out.”
Although the days have been long, Peck remains cautiously optimistic: “Every day that passes is one day closer to that first snowfall.”
In Eureka, Tracy McIntyre is coordinating dozens of volunteers and truckloads of donations to help the 185 families impacted by the Caribou Fire. McIntyre said the community has rallied around the evacuees and that social media has become an important organizing tool. Whenever they are running low on certain items — from food and toiletries to clothing and medication — they make a request on Facebook and it’s almost always filled in a matter of minutes.
Scott Fairfield, who manages the American Red Cross shelter in Eureka, said the community truly rallied around its own, with 250 to 300 people a day streaming into the shelter to see what they could do, what they could bring, how they could volunteer. At its peak, the shelter fed about 100 people a night for dinner, but the Red Cross didn’t have to pay for much — people brought food.
“The community is so close-knit that the community supplies everything,” Fairfield said.
Super 1 Foods in Whitefish also trucked in a load of food that required an extra six refrigerators, he said, and a local first-grade class drew pictures to hang around the shelter to brighten the mood. Fairfield teared up at the examples of humanity and decency, recalling a woman’s gift of small blankets to the children in the shelter and how those blankets made their day.
Last week, a woman who sheltered there during the Gibralter Fire walked in and said she wanted to give back, and was told her name would be added to the list but that all volunteer duties had been filled until at least Monday with the large number of people seeking to help.
For more than a week the residents of West Kootenai waited to learn when they could go home. Sam DesJardin said by the time he left work on Saturday, Sept. 2, law enforcement had already closed off access to his neighborhood. He lived in his van with his dogs at a local church, waiting for news in a cloud of smoke and uncertainty, until Sept. 10 when the evacuation order was lifted.
“All I know is my house is still there,” he said.
Additional reporting by Molly Priddy.