Winds Pick Up on Jocko Lakes Fire

By Beacon Staff

SEELEY LAKE – Predicted winds out of the west are picking up this afternoon on the Jocko Lakes Fire near Seeley Lake, but containment lines on the east flank of the fire – the side closest to homes – are holding, said fire information officer Pat Cross.

“The fire activity is picking up. The things that were just duffing around, when you get that wind hitting them, it starts to push them around and they come to life,” Cross said.

Cross estimates that the fire is threatening about 1,500 structures in areas around Seeley and Placid Lake. Evacuations are in place for 675 of them. The town of Seeley Lake is not part of the evacuation.

“If that wind really gets going and spotting like it did the other day, they’re all at risk,” Cross said.

The fire, which raced to 14,200 acres over the weekend, was quiet Monday, giving crews a chance to get containment line around 10 percent of the fire with most of that around the Dogtown, the Double Arrow Ranch and Seeley Lake. Cross said it’s good to have those lines tested today. “We haven’t had a good test on them yet,” he said.

Still, firefighters are concerned about the north and south ends of the fire growing and then hooking back around to the east of the fire, between the eastern flank of the fire and the western shore of Seeley Lake.

“We’re more worried about it squirting out and coming around,” Cross said.

The fire was hit by a squall late Monday night 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, a red-flag warning is in effect 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.

Between 200-300 people are working the blaze, fighting the fire at its head to slow its run toward the structures. 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.

Evacuees from Dogtown, the Double Arrow ranch and Placid Lake were allowed Monday and Tuesday mornings to check in on their properties during a three-hour window.

There have been no new evacuation orders issued, 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, 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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