As Ridge Fire Receives More Resources, Sheriff Explains ‘Tough’ Decision to Issue Pre-Evacuation Notices

An Interagency Incident Command Team has assumed control of the 2,940-acre Ridge Fire, which is now the No. 2 priority for fire managers in the northern Rockies region and is 1% contained

By Tristan Scott
Smoke from the Ridge Fire on Hungry Horse Reservoir on Aug. 4, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Aug. 9, when Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino began notifying around 400 residents from Martin City to West Glacier that they were on pre-evacuation notice due to the Ridge Fire burning north of Hungry Horse Reservoir, he didn’t anticipate that a half-inch of rain would fall the next day.

Heino said he made the decision following a period of extreme fire weather characterized by high temperatures in the 90s and low humidity hovering around 20%. And although forecasts calling for a cold front this week suggested the fire behavior could moderate, the predictions also included high winds and negligible precipitation.

“That rain changed a lot of things,” Heino told residents who gathered at the Glacier Bible Camp in Hungry Horse Thursday night for a public meeting. “It changed the perception of a lot of people, and we’ve been dealing with individuals who think we are out of the woods. But this fire is still extremely active and the longer we have to organize an evacuation, the better.”

According to top officials with the California Interagency Incident Management Team 4, which assumed control of the fire this week, the Ridge Fire is burning in steep terrain and, as of Thursday, remained at 0% containment. Although fire officials updated that figure to 1% containment on Friday and said Wednesday’s moisture helped moderate the fire behavior and allowed crews to transition to a direct-attack strategy, they defended Heino’s decision as the correct one.

“In my 50 years of fighting fire, the most difficult job you can imagine is being a sheriff in a community affected by wildfire,” said Incident Commander Rocky Opliger, who said the safety of firefighters and locals is paramount, particularly as the death toll rises on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where Opliger grew up. “Most fatalities occur when people wait until the last minute to evacuate. I’ve seen the devastating effects and you don’t want to experience it. But we’ve got a window of opportunity now to manage the footprint. We need to put this damn fire out.”

According to Heino, fire managers will continue to assess fire conditions and may adjust the pre-evacuation notice and their attendant zones in the coming days, as well as reconsider the closure on Hungry Horse Reservoir.

“As soon as we can open it up, we’ll open it up,” Heino said. “A lot of tough decisions fall on the sheriff and one of those is evacuations, pre-evacuations and restrictions to public access. And sitting in an office trying to come up with a solution that suits everyone in the community is a tough one. But we want you to have as much time as you can to prepare for the worst and we are going to continue to get you the best information as fast as we can.”

Heino encouraged residents to stay alert for updates to the Ridge Fire, which has its own Facebook information page here. Although he assigned 20 law enforcement officers to alert residents in the pre-evacuation zones by going door-to-door, “this pre-evacuation is huge. This area is massive and there are a lot of you.”

A pre-evacuation notice means the agencies involved believe there is a possibility of the fire spreading into the area. The intent of the notice, Heino said, is to allow residents the opportunity to make arrangements for their home, pets, livestock and family well in advance.

Residents, landlords, hotels and businesses in the area should also have a plan in place to evacuate should the need arise.

The American Red Cross has established a shelter in Columbia Falls. If residents plan to use the shelter, they should call the Red Cross in advance at 1-800-733-2767 prior to arrival.

Members of the public in attendance Thursday night were generally supportive of the fire management response and appreciated the additional resources that came with the arrival of the California Interagency Incident Management Team 4.

Still, some wondered how the fire grew so aggressively and why more resources weren’t made available earlier.

Andy Huntsberger, the fire management officer for the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District, said the Ridge Fire was one of 17 lighting-caused fires that firefighters responded to on July 30 in hot, dry conditions.

“The Ridge Fire expanded very quickly, and we knew it was a prloblem and we put buckets on it immediately,” Huntsberger told meeting attendees. “But with all these other fires going on around there it turns into triage. It becomes a matter of determining what fires we can actively suppress and have a high probability of success. Now, you can say, ‘well, it should have been the Ridge Fire.’ Well, the Ridge Fire at that point escaped our initial attack. So, we went to all these other fires. It’s not because we didn’t care about the Ridge Fire, it’s because it became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to suppress that fire. We had resources, but there were only so many to go around. And once again, in that give scenario, there were a lot of fires in western Montana. And I’m not just giving you what you want to hear. That is actually what happened. There is nothing that we are hiding. In western Montana, fire is part of the deal. It is part of our history. And it will happen. We are doing everything we can at this time, but that is where we are at with the Ridge Fire. We cannot go back in time.”

On Thursday, crews working at the southern edge of the fire near Emery Creek mopped up along the roadway and continued direct handline up to the 1616 Road, according to a Friday update of fire operations. Additional handline was constructed connecting the road system, and a proposed dozer line will continue to the 38 Road. At the northwest corner two Hotshot Crews scouted the area and developed a plan to go direct on the fire’s edge and continue handline to the south. To the north resources scouted the area for potential opportunities, and on the eastern side aviation resources were utilized to keep the fire in its current footprint.   

On Friday, crews continued to build direct line from the south to the 590E Road and constructed direct line on the west side of the fire to Desert Mountain Ridge.

“A plan will also be developed for the possibility of strategic low intensity firing operations where needed to safely connect areas of the fire line,” according to the update. “Structure protection assessments continue and are coordinated with the local agencies.”

The Hungry Horse Reservoir is closed to all public access, including both the east and west side roads.

As firefighting efforts continue on the Ridge Fire, the Tin Soldier Complex, and other fires in the area, the closure is in place to provide for public and firefighter safety.