Red Flag Warning Over the Jocko Lakes Fire

By Beacon Staff

Monday evening the Jocko Lakes Fire was hit by the squall and high winds firefighters had anticipated, and it “bumped the fire a little bit to the northwest,” fire information officer Ricardo Zuniga said. The winds stirred things up enough overnight to force firefighters to retreat to a safety zone.

But that was the only area where crews saw any significant growth, Zuniga said. There was no word on exactly how far the fire spread beyond the 14,200 acres it’s already consumed. Tuesday morning the fire was 10 percent contained.

Tuesday, a red-flag warning will be in effect beginning at noon and it could extend into Wednesday, Zuniga said. “There’s a lot of concern for today,” he said, adding, “(the wind) could reignite active fire behavior.”

The fire burns about a mile from Seeley Lake, and wind could easily push it closer.

Except for the late-evening outburst, Monday turned out to be a quiet day on the Jocko Lakes Fire and there was little appreciable growth. Between 200-300 personnel worked the blaze, fighting the fire at its head to slow its run toward the many structures there. Being the nation’s top priority, the fire is the first to get available crews and equipment if needed.

The fire’s total acreage was reduced Monday, from 18,000 acres to 14,200, due to infrared mapping.

A total of 675 homes near Seeley and Placid Lakes have been evacuated and early Monday residents were allowed to check in on their properties during a three-hour window. Evacuees have that opportunity again on Tuesday morning, between 8 and 11 a.m. The town of Seeley Lake has not been evacuated, but if the fire pushes in that direction under predicted winds, that could change.

There were no new evacuation orders issued Monday, but a 12-hour pre-evacuation notice was given to residents living south of the Double Arrow road to Highway 200 and from Highway 83 east to Cottonwood Creek past Cozy Corner, fire information officer Pat Cross said.

Fire officials confirmed Sunday that at least one home burned in the weekend’s blow up, as the fire raced from 800 acres Saturday morning to 14,200 by Sunday.

In addition to the one destroyed home, seven outbuildings and “other” structures were destroyed, and another primary home and a commercial property were damaged, Cross said.

“It’s an amazingly low number (of structures burned) considering how the fire was carrying on,” he said.

The fire erupted Saturday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes around Placid Lake and Seeley Lake, closing Highway 83 and prompting Gov. Schweitzer to issue an emergency declaration.

The blaze displayed “tremendous fire activity,” Cross said Saturday, “activity firefighters haven’t seen before in this part of the world.”

The mandatory evacuation orders are in effect south of the east-west line at mile marker 22 on Highway 83, and everything west of the west shore of Seeley Lake. Highway 83 is closed from Clearwater Junction to Condon. Closures on the west side of the fire include Gray Wolf Trail Road, South Fork Road and Jocko Lakes Road.

Near the town of Seeley Lake, the Double Arrow Resort and Dogtown on the southern edge of town have been evacuated. Authorities are asking evacuees to check in at the Bonner Elementary School or the Condon Work Center. An emergency hotline has been set up at 406-258-4271.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer will be visiting the fire on Tuesday. Over the weekend, he issued an emergency declaration for 11 Montana counties after seeing the Jocko Lakes Fire firsthand.

As the AP reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved the state’s request for funds Saturday night, meaning FEMA will pay 75 percent of eligible state costs of fighting the blaze.

The Jocko Lakes Fire was reported at about 3:00 Friday afternoon. The fire first started on Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Land, but quickly spotted to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s protection on Forest Service lands. According to reports from fire information officer Jamie Kirby, the fire spread from 10 acres to 300 in a matter of a half an hour.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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