As the danger from another wildfire season tentatively begins to draw down, the finger-pointing over fire policy and management has already ramped up. The rumor mill that inevitably takes shape amid natural disasters has given rise to a controversial story regarding mismanagement of the Jocko Lakes fire by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation. It’s a rumor a tribal spokesman is taking great pains to dispel, and one he said reveals an alarming disconnect between the CSKT and surrounding communities.
According to Rob McDonald, communications director for the tribes, the rumor began circulating around Aug. 6 – a few days after the Jocko Lakes fire started expanding rapidly – that CSKT officials obstructed a DNRC crew from an initial attack of the beginnings of the fire July 18 because it was burning in a tribal primitive area. The fire, which as of this writing has burned more 35,000 acres, came close to destroying the town of Seeley Lake.
McDonald said officials in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation told him citizens attending public fire informational meetings in Seeley Lake were asking whether the CSKT had rejected attempts by the DNRC to extinguish the Jocko Lakes fire. The rumor reached as high as Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, who said he received a call the week of Aug. 13 from a constituent asking him to look into the matter. Barkus said he discussed the incident with DNRC State Forester Bob Harrington, who was aware of the story, at a legislative audit meeting in Helena Aug. 21.
Harrington said he heard about the incident Aug. 4, “soon after the fire took off.” At that point, Harrington said he was fairly certain the Jocko Lakes fire had originated in an area where there had been a lightning strike fire, at the southeastern edge of the Flathead reservation. He interviewed DNRC firefighters on the scene that night, and compared notes with CSKT Fire Management Officer Tony Harwood. “We accepted the (tribes) response,” Harrington said. “It certainly didn’t need the microscope that it’s now under.”
“People would like to point the finger at one sole cause for why the Jocko Lakes fire got up and ran,” Harrington added. “Then the rumor mill takes off and it can be pretty damaging, I think.”
According to Harwood’s report on July 18, when a series of severe lightning storms swept through the region, a fire was reported to CSKT dispatcher Vic Stevens at around 8:40 p.m. The Mt. Morrell Fire Lookout east of Seeley Lake located the fire on an east-facing slope that descends down to the southwestern shore of Upper Jocko Lake. A few minutes later, the Pistol Creek Fire Lookout, southwest of Upper Jocko Lake, reported a fire in the same area.
Around that same time, Howard Kent, unit supervisor with the Clearwater State Forest, began making calls to CSKT dispatch observing smoke in the same area. Kent was with a DNRC initial attack crew on the Jocko Road, about a half-mile from the fire. “We flagged the area where we were seeing the smoke from,” Kent said, and the crew took other measurements to provide an exact location of the fire. But the fire, located about a mile and a half into the Flathead Reservation, in the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primitive Area, was outside Kent’s jurisdiction. Kent said he made three phone calls to the Ronan fire dispatch office providing updated information.
Designated in 1974, the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primitive Area and other primitive areas on the reservation, are protected lands set aside for plant-gathering, hunting, solitude and cultural and traditional practices. Only tribal members are allowed in primitive areas, Harwood said. “That area is in full suppression policy,” he added. “It is not an area where fires are allowed to burn.”
According to Kent and Harwood, communication between the DNRC crew and CSKT dispatch ended at around 10 p.m. the evening of July 18. Harwood said Kent’s final conversation with dispatcher Stevens was “a clear handoff of information about the fires and a good exchange of information that the Salish and Kootenai tribes were going to attack the fires.”
Acknowledging that “hindsight’s always 20/20,” Kent said his crew was eager to attack the fire but wouldn’t venture onto a primitive area without clearance from tribal authorities.
“I really wish they would have called me back so I could have sent my engine crew to tie in with them,” Kent added. “We were there, we had eyes on the fire, we were not asked to go.”
“I felt it was best that we should go there, but without the ‘OK and go-ahead’ I didn’t think it was our place,” he added. “They said they would head up with one of their engine crews the next day.”
Due to the late hour, the darkness, and the steep and unfamiliar terrain, Harwood said the conditions were too dangerous to send in the DNRC crew: “In remote country like that, it’s difficult for nighttime actions.”
Harrington, noting that there were five or six fires ignited around the Flathead reservation from lightning storms that night and resources were spread thin, backs Harwood up on the call. “I think it’s an appropriate decision to say ‘Let’s wait until daylight and go on up there,’” Harrington said. “It was the right decision on the part of our firefighters to not, at that time of night, go into unfamiliar terrain.”
“There’s a lot of reasons why they did what they did and I think it was the right decision,” Harrington added of the CSKT response that night.
The following morning, July 19, the three-person CSKT initial attack crew dispatched to the Jocko Lakes area found the ribbons the DNRC crew had left to indicate the best location to view the fire from the Jocko Road – but the fire was nowhere to be seen. “I’m amazed that there was no smoke evident from that whole period following that July 18 incident,” Harwood said. “We flew our helicopters over the area repeatedly.” Subsequent attempts by tribal fire authorities over the next 16 days to locate the fire would turn up nothing, until the Jocko Lakes fire blazed to life Aug. 3.
And with the fire blazing to life, so too did the rumors and accusations against the tribes for the decisions firefighters made that night. McDonald, CSKT communications director, said the tribes have been accused of having a “let it burn” policy on “sacred” land. “We’re also accused of letting it burn so we can make work for our people,” he added, “which is absolutely ridiculous.”
“Any assumption that it’s a sacred site and we can’t go in there is Hollywood hullabaloo,” McDonald said. “All the land is sacred; there is no hierarchy of sacred.”
McDonald added that he is surprised that such “not fully socialized viewpoints” and misconceptions about the beliefs and practices of the Flathead reservation’s people persist, particularly when it comes to a fire where millions of dollars were lost and thousands of lives endangered.
“It’s highly emotional and people want an answer, they want to be able to pinpoint what went wrong,” he said. “It could be that in this case they’re picking an easy scapegoat.”
Harrington said it’s natural, that as an intense fire season goes on for months, people want to “turn back the clock and ask why,” but he praised the CSKT fire crews, not only for their work on the Jocko Lakes fire, but on the Chippy Creek and Black Cat fires. “They are a good fire organization and I don’t think it’s good to call into question their integrity or response to a particular fire.”
With a special session of the state Legislature convening Sept. 5, the questions over the costs and causes of the 2007 wildfire season are only going to escalate. The rumors persist, and so do the fires.
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