Living with Fire on the North Fork

Whale Butte reinforced lessons our community learned from previous wildfires

By Karina Pettey

Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018: Lightning punctuated local radio chatter as our neighbors tried to pinpoint strikes from the predicted dry storm. For now, darkness shrouded the forest as duff incubated the embers.

Sunday morning, the smell of fresh smoke greeted us but we shrugged it off. Our neighbor smelled it as well and called it in. Dispatch argued, he insisted. Three hours later, there was official confirmation of a fire on Whale Butte. A little fire located up the North Fork, one of several started by the same storm, Whale Butte was low priority and we knew it.

Preparing for fire begins before lightning strikes. The North Fork Landowners Association (NFLA) collaborates with government agencies on multiple fronts including fire safety. Community organizations and agencies with responsibilities on the North Fork hold joint public meetings twice a year. It’s an opportunity to address issues, network, and build relationships. North Forkers don’t mince words and our government partners know it! When the Type I Team was assigned, the Forest Service made it clear that its relationship with the Polebridge community was a value at risk. An angry North Fork is the stuff of local legend. After all, we might quit bringing dessert to potlucks!

Once lightning struck, our neighborhood acted. The Moose Creek Road picnic that Sunday turned into a fire meeting when local fire leadership showed up. We alerted residents and land owners to the threat. Others interfaced with the Type III team monitoring the fire. When the Type I team took over Thursday night, local communication networks were being used to efficiently share information.

At home, we planned our fire strategy. Three of the nine properties closest to the fire we own or manage. We planned a multi-step approach, first prepare the property closest to the fire, next remove personal effects and finally protect the remaining two properties. We figured if the fire blew we’d be ready to help our neighbors.

Tuesday, Aug. 14: Our crew started working. We weren’t going to wait and see if the fire would blow. They worked steadily all week and then early on Friday, Aug. 17, the fire appeared to make a run. That day we experienced community. Neighbors showed up to help those close to the fire get personal effects out. They offered storage, places to stay, provided emergency medical services, brought supplies from town, and assisted with structure protection. As Larry Wilson, NFLA president, recently said, “There’s nothing like a fire to bring a community together.”

Somewhere in the haze of Friday, our road turned into a fire command post, pre-evacuation notices were delivered, Flathead County completed structure protection analysis and began distribution of fire protection systems, and heavy equipment started rolling in. No one had expected this level of support.

For the next two weeks the road by our home became a place to get frontline fire updates as we ran into fire personnel from all over the country. Their professionalism and willingness to share from their perspective what was happening both educated and entertained us.

While Whale Butte did not exhibit Howe Ridge wildfire behavior, it certainly had potential and fuel to do so. Its slow-moving nature (partly a result of early, aggressive air operations) gave everyone a chance to respond. By Sept. 6, crews were removing structure protection systems and fire operations were shifting to monitor and patrol.

Whale Butte reinforced lessons our community learned from previous wildfires. First, have a plan. If you live on the North Fork, you will use it. We already kept irreplaceable items in easy to move totes and had a list of what had to be moved. It was stack and go.

Next, work on fuel modification and structure protection regularly. Fuel modification can change fire behavior. Start work close to structures and inspect access to your property. Many of our neighbors had worked on fire mitigation since the Wedge Fire. They focused on setting up personal fire protection systems and removing personal effects. Our new personal goal is to make sure properties can be evacuated and fire ready in four hours.

Finally, communication, community and relationships provided a huge benefit in the face of natural disaster. Veteran fire crew members who worked previous North Fork fires told us that this time, the information flow, cooperation and relationships between the community and various agencies were significantly improved. This is the most important lesson we learned from the Whale Butte Fire.

Our heartfelt thanks to the firefighters, Incident Management Teams, Flathead National Forest, Flathead County and the NFLA for their service and attention to the Whale Butte Fire and the North Fork community.

Karina and her family enjoy life on the banks of Moose Creek. They moved to the North Fork in 2009 to care for a remote property and purchased land nearby in 2015.

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