IRVINE FLATS – Margaret Vrooman has been keeping an eye on the American flag in front of her house and hoping the wind keeps it blowing in the “right direction.”
For Vrooman, who lives just a few miles from Big Arm, the right direction is away from her family’s ranch on Irvine Flats, where the West Garceau Fire ignited last week, temporarily forcing 15 people from their homes and destroying two outbuildings.
Fire season may have come late to Northwest Montana this year, but it has started in earnest. As of this week, at least four major fires are burning throughout the region, the largest of which are deep within the Flathead National Forest and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
But smaller fires have erupted closer to populated areas within the Flathead Valley, including an Aug. 14 blaze off Farm to Market Road west of Kalispell. Firefighters quickly doused the 10-acre fire.
One of the most concerning blazes is the West Garceau Fire, which started on Aug. 13 as a small grassfire. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes public information officer Curtis Matt said when firefighters arrived it was 10 acres in size, but 45 minutes later it had ballooned to 400 acres. By the following day it was 2,000 acres and growing. And then the wind came.
“We didn’t think too much of it at first, but when the wind started blowing, then we started getting calls from neighbors,” Vrooman said.
As the fire raced across the grasslands, officers from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office also raced from house to house to warn people of the oncoming flames. Vrooman said many people were hesitant to leave their animals behind and soon the family ranch became a haven for the neighbors’ horses and sheep.
At one point, it looked as if the Vroomans would have to evacuate their home.
“I did pack up some stuff and we were ready,” Vrooman said. “I even got all the cats in kennels, because I thought we were going.”
In the end, 15 people were forced from their homes, spending the night of Aug. 14 at the Big Arm Volunteer Fire Department. By the morning of Aug. 15, the fire had grown to nearly 9,000 acres, though its progress was slowed by rain and cooler temperatures. An interagency Type 2 incident management team took over that morning.
According to the management team’s public information officer, Jennifer Costich, the break from hot weather gave firefighters a chance to get a handle on the blaze, but it would only be temporary.
“It’s all weather dependent. (The rain) was enough to put a damper on it, but it didn’t stop it,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
As of Tuesday, the fire had burned 9,431 acres and was 55 percent contained. More than 270 firefighters, representing 17 states, were assigned to the blaze.
Last week, Costich said no one knew how long the West Garceau Fire could burn, but it’s possible that it will smolder until a season-ending weather event. That’s the outlook for other fires in the area, including the Condon Mountain Fire, which had burned more than 1,500 acres by Monday. The fire was the subject of a public meeting on Aug. 12 at the Swan Valley Community Center.
Burning in rugged terrain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Prisoner Lake Fire has grown to more than 4,000 acres, making it one of the larger fires in the area. But the biggest fire by far in Northwest Montana is the Elbow Pass Fire Complex, located deep within both the Flathead and Lewis and Clark national forests. By Monday, it had burned more than 19,000 acres. Due to the fire’s remote location it poses little threat to the public, other than a noticeable haze across the valley.
On Aug. 16, the haze across the Irvine Flats was thick from the West Garceau Fire. Standing on her lawn, Vrooman looked across the valley at the blaze. She was thankful none of her neighbors had lost their homes, but mindful that fire season was far from over. The worry was eased by the understanding that her neighbors would be ready to lend a helping hand, just as she had a few days earlier.
“Everyone is so busy with their ranches and such, but when there is a situation like this, we’re there to help one another,” she said.
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