Jocko Lakes Fire Runs North

By Beacon Staff

With attention fixed on the Jocko Lakes Fire’s east side after Sunday’s break out, the fire on Monday “made a major run” along its northern flank, escaping confinement and spreading in isolated and remote country near the North Fork of Placid Creek, fire information officer Tom Kempton said.

“It was another fairly exciting one,” information officer Pete Buist said.

The fire also grew slightly to the southwest.

But on the east side, closest to Seeley Lake and most of the 1,500 threatened homes, there was little activity. “We hung on to it,” Buist said, referring to the fire line there along West Side Bypass Road, parallel to and about 1 1/2 miles west of the lake.

As of Monday evening, the fire was mapped at 21,270 acres — about 33 square miles — and 9 percent contained. The acreage may jump substantially Tuesday once the growth to the north is mapped.

Sunday and Monday were particularly challenging for firefighters, but Kempton expects that things will only get busier in the coming days. According the National Weather Service, an approaching frontal system may move across the fire area and much of western Montana Thursday, possibly bringing with it windy conditions and strong to severe thunderstorms. “It speaks for itself,” Kempton said.

On Sunday, the fire broke out on its east side closest to Seeley Lake, moving south along the contingency line at West Side Bypass Road (2190). But the fire did not cross the line and crews were able to regain control.

“We lost the head of the fire for a while, but then we got it back,” Buist said.

Buist said the fire became so intense that firefighters were forced to “disengage” and retreat to safety zones. “It was too violent to keep people on the line,” he said.

Gusty winds upwards of 25 mph sent spot fires into the Eagle Point subdivision, forcing firefighters to foam structures and perform burnout operations there. No additional structures were lost. A couple hours later, the winds died down and the fire laid down.

Sunday’s fire activity prompted officials to reissue mandatory evacuation orders for areas west of Highway 83, including: Boy Scout Road from Highway 83 to the bridge; Riverview from Highway 83 to the bridge; The two subdivisions adjacent to Riverview Bridge; Daisy; Wagonwheel and Overland. The new evacuation orders were issued at 4:30 p.m. and by 5:30 p.m. the evacuations were complete, fire information officer Jennifer Yuhas said. The Red Cross re-opened a shelter in Bonner for evacuees.

“If it had made much more of an advance to the east, we were on the verge of doing a more extensive evacuation,” Buist said.

Yuhas said Sunday’s conditions were nearly identical to last Saturday’s, when the fire blew up and forced the initial wave of evacuations.

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 last week. “I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.”

Travel on Highway 83 is restricted between Clearwater Junction and Mile Marker 31. Officials are asking that travel be limited to residents of the Seeley Lake/Condon area, people with “legitimate business” and people attending scheduled functions.

Also, Seeley Lake and Placid Lake are both closed to recreational boat use to allow helicopters and water scooping planes to fill from the lake.

The fire, which ignited last Friday, August 3, is threatening some 1,500 structures.

The fire is again listed as the nation’s top priority wildfire. For a few days last week it was trumped by the Tin Cup Fire near Darby in the Bitterroot Valley, which is now fully contained. On Wednesday, a Type 1 incident management team from Alaska took over command. So far, about $6.1 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.

Fire officials confirmed Sunday, August 5 that at least one home burned in the weekend’s blow up, as the fire raced from 800 acres last 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.

The fire erupted Saturday, August 4 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,” fire information officer 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, August 3. 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.

This is the breakdown of jurisdiction and acreage so far:

1,052 acres on Flathead Agency (MT-FHA)
4,485 acres on Lolo National Forest (MT-LNF)
13,615 acres on Missoula Dispatch-Private (MT-MDCI)
2,118 acres on DNRC Southwest Montana Land Office (MT-SWS)

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.