In Times of Trouble, Neighbors Unite

Residents of Plains dig their own fire line and open up their doors to neighbors

By Molly Priddy
Signs supporting firefighters have popped up around the state. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

PLAINS — The air was heavy and still, the smoke from the nearby lightning-caused Sheep Gap Fire painting a sickly, brownish-red film on the scenery.

At their home on Swamp Creek Road last week, William (Bill) and Nancy Dorn had a trailer packed and hitched to their SUV, ready for the sheriff’s deputy to knock on their door and tell them their pre-evacuation status had been upgraded and it was time to go.

They’d started packing before receiving official orders, Bill Dorn said, because they’d seen the voracious fire picking up pace and eating up the mountain ridges behind their home.

Deciding what to pack wasn’t hard.

“It’s not that difficult to tell you the truth,” Dorn said on Sept. 5, standing outside in the silence, save for the continuous tick-tick-tick of nearby sprinklers watering down the neighborhood. “We take the stuff that’s valuable: our personal papers, guns, ammunition, family pictures, birth certificates, military papers.”

Everything else is insured, he said, and could be replaced. The Dorns have lived in Plains full-time for eight years and know their neighbors well. When the situation became dire, the folks of Swamp Creek banded together and got their heavy machinery moving.

With the blessing of the firefighting crews in charge of battling the blaze, residents of the neighborhood, which includes a sawmill and an outfitter’s lodge, dug their own fire line and worked to clear underbrush and other fuels.

There was an American Red Cross shelter ready to take in evacuees, but for the Dorns, that would have been about Option 15 on their list. A son lives in Missoula and they could go stay with him, but there were even closer options, including a friend who lives nearby on the river, a friend in Thompson Falls, or an offer from the folks who run The Butcher’s Nook in town, who extended an invitation to a guest cabin.

“We’ve got places we could go, but I don’t really want to leave,” Dorn said.

He feared that thieves might take advantage of a disastrous situation, though local law enforcement was preparing to close off the road to public traffic to cut down on rubberneckers.

Their futures would all depend on the wind, and how it directed the fire. But at that moment, the Swamp Creek neighborhood was working together to defend itself.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Dorn said. “I think we’re OK for now.”

Update: Swamp Creek was evacuated at 9 p.m. on Sept. 12. 

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