Smoke from the East Fork Fire occludes the sun near Olney on Aug. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rain Offers ‘Tactical Advantage’ on River Road East Fire

Rain fell across regional fires, continuing to moderate fire behavior ahead of warmer, dryer conditions expected to arrive heading into the weekend

By Mike Kordenbrock

Rain fell across several regional fires on Monday, and that precipitation continued Tuesday, continuing to moderate fire behavior and give firefighting personnel a chance to make progress ahead of warmer, dryer conditions expected to arrive heading into the weekend.

Law enforcement agencies in some cases have either rolled back pre-evacuation and evacuation orders, or allowed property owners in to collect belongings.

River Road East Fire

In the case of the River Road East Fire, which is burning across 16,790 acres near the community of Paradise about six miles east of Plains, the Sanders County Sheriff’s Office had announced late Monday afternoon in a social media post that McLaughlin Creek Road residents living below Upper and Lower Lamaraux Road would be allowed to see their properties and gather small items beginning Tuesday, Aug. 22. The sheriff’s office cautioned people to be aware of rolling rocks, stumps and other debris that might shift.

The McLaughlin Creek area is where Sheriff Shawn Fielders confirmed in a community meeting Sunday at the Plains High School gym that structures had been lost.

A large incident situation report from the Northern Rockies Coordinating Center, a federal interagency management agency that helps organize and mobilize resources for wildfires and other emergency incidents in the Northern Rockies region, put the number of structures destroyed by the River Road East Fire at 50, with 265 threatened as of Tuesday. That report does not specify the type of structures lost.

A total of 383 firefighting personnel have been assigned to the fire, and firefighting costs on the incident, which sparked last Friday, Aug. 18, had exceeded $2 million by Tuesday morning. Officials have continued to list the cause of the fire as unknown.

The incident management team on the fire was anticipating moderated fire behavior from the cooler weather, and a light drizzle most of Tuesday morning was expected to keep the fire in check. The fire is at zero percent contained, and on Sunday, Incident Commander Brent Olson had said that lack of containment was due in part to a focus on structure protection in the area.

In its Monday afternoon social media post, the Sanders County Sheriff’s Office wrote that for those who live on Upper and Lower Lamaraux Creek and above “your time will come,” and that firefighters had yet to make it all the way through and were trying to make it safe first.

“Take care and continue to lean on each other and the community,” the post says.  

Justin Kaber, an operation sections chief with the Northern Rockies Team 1 incident management team on the fire, said in a video update Monday afternoon that the rain would lend “a tactical advantage” over the next couple of days.

Rainfall totals over the fire on Monday averaged between .15 and .3 inches, and some areas saw up to a half-inch of rain. The rain that had fallen on the fire by Tuesday morning has subdued the fire’s activity and is expected to improve opportunities for firefighters to work on direct control lines, but it has not extinguished the fire, according to a Tuesday morning update from the incident management team on the fire.

“The amount of containment line required is high due to the overall size of the fire,” the update says.

The 16,790-acre size estimate was unchanged from Monday, but that is due to weather conditions prohibiting an infrared mapping flight. More rain was in the forecast heading into Tuesday, with the expectation that partly cloudy conditions, temperatures between 73 and 83 in valleys and 63 to 73 on ridges would be present in the area of the fire. Relative humidity levels in the fire area Tuesday were expected to range between 40% and 50%, with winds from the southwest between 10 and 15 miles per hour.

Crews plan, as conditions allow, to begin moving equipment to the north side of the fire near Henry’s Creek and the east side near Camas Prairie to start building direct lines. On the southeast side crews went into Tuesday planning to continue accessing remote areas and evaluating fire control line options, per the update. Patrols will continue along fire lines on the north and south side of the river and the Highway 200 corridor. On the southwest side, firefighters on Tuesday planned to begin working on indirect control lines below and to the west of Pat’s Knob Lookout and the nearby communication infrastructure site. A hotshot crew planned to work the northwest corner of the fire Tuesday to try and stop its movement north. A long-term suppression plan remained in development going into Tuesday. Aircraft will be available to work the fire Tuesday as weather permits.

East Fork Fire

Located roughly 12 miles south of Trego, the East Fork Fire is reported to be 5 percent contained and 4,614 acres in size, which is unchanged from the same estimates offered Monday due to a lack of an infrared mapping flight heading into Tuesday.

An estimated half-inch of rain fell on the fire overnight Monday into Tuesday, and crews planned to focus on building a continuous fire line throughout the day along the fire’s northern edge. On the eastern edge, the plan going into the day was to use heavy equipment to open up roads, and to remove burned and weakened trees to improve road access and firefighter safety.

“Cool, wet weather was a welcome relief to our firefighters,” says an update from the fire’s incident management team. “Because of reduced fire behavior, crews were able to move in closer to the active fire and strengthen existing lines. Overcast, smoky conditions prevented the use of aircraft for the day.”

Highway 93 is open to traffic with a reduced speed limit of 35 mph between mile marker 144.3 and 149.5, and stopping along the road is prohibited, according to the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services.There was no change by noon Tuesday in the pre-evacuation warnings previously issued by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office. The last change came on Sunday, when the sheriff’s office downgraded an evacuation order to a pre-evacuation warning for all properties north of mile marker 146 on Highway 93 to mile marker 157.9, residents of Good Creek Road, and people who access good Creek Road west to the Lincoln County line. Pre-evacuation warnings issued on Aug. 17 remain in effect.

A public meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, at the Olney-Bissell School.

Ridge, Doris Point and Tin Soldier Fires

A pre-evacuation notice from the east side of Spotted Bear Road to West Glacier has been rescinded by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.

An evacuation order for the Heinrude community remained in place Tuesday, as did the closure of the Hungry Horse Reservoir to public access.

The Ridge Fire, about six miles east of Hungry Horse, was estimated to be 3,651 acres in size and 62 percent contained going into Tuesday, which marks an increase of 23 percentage points from Monday. The Doris Point Fire, about eight miles south of Hungry Horse, was estimated to be 1,534 acres in size and 10 percent contained early Tuesday. The Tin Soldier Fire is estimated to be 7,697 acres in size and zero percent contained.

Showers and thunderstorms are a possibility Tuesday afternoon in the area due to lingering high elevation moisture in the area, and some heavy downpours could occur.

Crews on the Ridge Fire worked Monday to mop up on the western and northwestern portions of the fire. On its northeastern edge crews monitored spot fires and control lines. Heavy equipment is being used to construct indirect lines through dense vegetation, according to a Tuesday fire update from the incident management team on the fire. Mop up is planned to continue on the southeast section of the fire and crews will work on installing control lines to further prevent fire spread to the north and east.

On the Doris Point Fire, crews will continue working with the Flathead National Forest to keep the fire confined, and continue fuels reduction and structural protection prep work including setting up pumps and sprinklers.

On the Tin Soldier Fire, crews spent Monday holding and securing Meadow Creek Road, and, similar to those on the Doris Point fire, they plan continue to coordinate with the Flathead National Forest and work on fuel reduction and structural protection.