Crews Make Progress on Jocko Lakes Fire Near Seeley

By Beacon Staff

Firefighting efforts on the 24,190-acre Jocko Lakes Fire west of Seeley Lake were “steady and smooth” Wednesday, said fire information officer Lori Wiertsema.

Crews made good progress on the fire’s unruly north and south flanks, where most of the activity has been over the past few days. By Wednesday night, the fire was up to 15 percent contained, up from 9 percent Wednesday morning.

Wednesday morning, the majority of the evacuated residents around Seeley Lake adjacent to the fire were allowed to return to their homes, except residents of the following areas: Eagle Point subdivision, Snowmass Drive, Westside Bypass Road (2190), and locations inside the fire perimeter.

In addition, Highway 83 is now open. Officials are asking drivers to exercise caution with the highway being used for fire traffic. The fire is estimated at 24,190 acres.

On Tuesday, crews were able to hold the line on the east side of the fire, closest to Seeley Lake and most of the 1,500 threatened homes, but much of the extreme fire behavior has been elsewhere.

“We’re putting most of our efforts down on the southern horn and continued contained on the east front,” fire information officer Jennifer Yuhas said Wednesday.

That southern flank has growth significantly in the last few days, and Yuhas said the fire there, and on the north side too, has been particularly unpredictable.

As for the severe thunderstorms and high winds expected Thursday, “It’s not going to be as strong as predicted, but it’s still supposed to show up,” Yuhas said. The National Weather Service states that “breezy conditions and isolated strong to severe thunderstorms” are possible.

The cooler temperatures and higher humidities at night are helping handcrews gain ground. Fire officials, seeing this opportunity, are now devoting more personnel to the night shift.

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

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.”

The fire is listed as the nation’s top priority wildfire. Last Wednesday, a Type 1 incident management team from Alaska took over command. So far, about $8.1 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, ignited by lightning. 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.

New Fires

Fire officials reported a new fire in the Seeley Lake Ranger district Wednesday. The fire, which officials say was likely lighting-caused, is about 18 miles northeast of Clearwater Crossing and is estimated at 30 acres, although thick smoke was making it hard for fire managers to estimate its true size. The fire is not threatening any structures and is burning in timber and logging slash in a remote area.

Airtankers were working on the fire Wednesday afternoon, but had to return to their base and two helicopters from the Jocko Lakes Fire swung over to drop water on the blaze. One hand crew is on its way to the fire.

On Monday, Elizabeth Sleath, 57, was arrested by the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office after witnesses allegedly saw her ignite two small fires along Highway 83. The fires, near the 3300 block on 83, were small enough that witnesses were able to put them out before the fire department arrived, Detective Dave Brenner said.

Sleath, a Montana resident who lives part-time in Seeley Lake, was arrested at the scene, charged with two counts of felony arson. “Obviously we don’t know if she had anything to do with any (other fires),” Brenner said. The Jocko Lakes Fire was started by lightning, according to officials.

This story will be updated throughout the day. For a roundup of all of Montana’s wildfires, check in at www.newwest.net/fire.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.