Jocko Lakes Fire: Some Evacuees Can Return

By Beacon Staff

Thursday’s big news from the Jocko Lakes Fire is that the evacuation order issued for residences and businesses on the east side of Highway 83 was lifted — conditionally.

The reopened area is along Golf Drive east of Highway 83 and between the town of Seeley Lake and the Double Arrow Resort. Highway 83 itself remains restricted.

Fire information officer Tom Kempton said the reopening is “all dependent on fire behavior,” and that anyone heading back to these areas must be prepared to evacuate within 90 minutes should fire officials deem it necessary.

Allowing some evacuees to return to their homes should “return more normalcy,” Kempton said, though with such unpredictable fire behavior, “things could change minute to minute.”

On Thursday much of firefighters’ attention was focused on the fire’s northeast flank, closest to Seeley Lake, where the fire jumped containment line Wednesday. Crews have been building dozer line and conducting burnout operations in the Archibald Creek area and along the Westside Bypass, or 2190. (Officials are referring to that road as Westside Bypass now as opposed to 2190 because most locals don’t refer to it as 2190, Kempton said.) And CL-215 “super scoopers” dumped a tremendous amount of water on that edge, Kempton said.

Officials “feel pretty comfortable” with the contingency line firefighters have constructed there, where many of the 1,500 threatened structures stand to the east, along the west shore of the lake. But, Kempton warned, “there’s still lots of fire out there, lots of fire to get line around.”

The fire has not yet reached Boy Scout Road, which runs along the west shore of Seeley Lake. Boy Scout Road is the trigger point for evacuating the town of Seeley Lake. If the fire hits it, “that’s the time when we would evacuate the rest of town,” fire information officer Pat Cross said Tuesday. “I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.”

The fire was 18,600 acres by Thursday evening, up from 16,800 Wednesday, and it remained about 10 percent contained.

Red-flag conditions are predicted for Friday with a mass of warmer and drier air moving in, Kempton said.

On Wednesday, when the fire jumped containment lines to the northeast, the incident command team on the fire was without two of its CL-215 airplanes, which have been a big help to crews in securing fire line over the last few days.

“During that time, that was a critical time, when it crossed the line,” McNitt said.

Fire information officer Andy Sheetz said the two planes were down for mechanical repairs.

“The fire did make a big push out,” said Rob Allen, Operations Section Chief on the fire.

Crews successfully conducted burnout operations Wednesday night in the Archibald Creek area and also around a Missoula Electric Co-Op power substation near Placid Lake, information officer Tom Kempton said.

Also on Wednesday night, firefighters put out two spot fires, one near the west-side bypass and another, near the power substation, before they spread.

The fire, which ignited Friday, is threatening some 1,500 structures and hundreds of homes are still evacuated around Placid Lake and in Dogtown.

About 495 people are working the blaze. The fire is now the nation’s No. 2 priority fire, behind the Tin Cup Fire near Darby, Montana. On Wednesday, a Type 1 incident management team from Alaska took over command. So far, about $2.5 million has been spent fighting the fire.

Fire officials are calling the fire a long-term event, one that might not really quiet until fall arrives. The surrounding communities are in for a long season watching and waiting for enough moisture to end the season. Containment is estimated for Sept. 15. As of now, the fire is exhibiting “extreme” behavior in “extreme” terrain and has “extreme” growth potential, according to reports.

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.

The mandatory evacuation orders are in effect south of the east-west line at mile marker 22 on Highway 83 west of 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.

Even with the evacuations in place, several homeowners have not left.

“Those people are basically going to be on their own,” McNitt said. “This is not a game. This is potentially life or death.”

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.

“It just screamed,” Ricardo “Zuni” Zuniga said. “It just ran four to five miles in about four hours.”

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.