Fires hit Madison County
Virginia Creek Fire: Residents told to prepare for possible evacuation
MCALLISTER - Saturday evening, August 4, at 6 p.m. representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Madison Valley Rural Fire Department, and Madison County met with about 20 residents who have homes in the South Meadow Creek area.
The fire official’s message to these people was serious: “Be prepared,” they said.
Depending on how the weather turned, how the fire behaved and how firefighters handled the blaze, the Virginia Creek fire might prompt an evacuation of homes on South Meadow Creek Road.
The blaze is located about five miles west of McAllister, on federal Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service acreage, in the Virginia Creek drainage. A number of homes lie about a mile northeast of the blaze.
A lightning strike on Thursday, Aug. 2, at about 12:45 p.m., sparked the blaze, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Interagency Dispatch Center, located in Dillon.
The fire grew on Friday, Aug. 3, from a single burning tree to about 15 acres.
It spread quickly, Incident Commander Randy Gilbert said, because it was fueled by heavy mixed conifers (sub-alpine fir, Engleman Spruce and lodgepole pine) coupled with very heavy concentrations of standing and fallen dead trees on the ground – waist high in places.
The fire was not contained on Friday, Aug. 3– despite two engines, two water tenders, two helicopters and one 20-person hand crew fighting the fire.
Firefighters and first responders from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Madison Valley and Harrison volunteer fire departments and the Madison County Sheriff’s department were on the scene Friday.
Firefighters, assisted by helicopters, were able to engage the fire and slow its spread toward homes in the South Meadow Creek area. They continued to build and strengthen existing containment features on the eastern side of the fire, and were looking for opportunities to engage the western flank of the fire in areas where access, fuels and fire behavior allowed.
Fighting the fire
On Saturday evening, Aug. 4, Gilbert told those gathered at Madison Valley Rural Fire Department, Station No. 1 for the public meeting on the fire, that fire crews were “holding their own… working diligently.” However, “swirly” winds and spot fires (embers kicked airborne and traveling some distance from the fire) were creating havoc for firefighters.
A hose line had been laid in along the eastern flank of the fire, Gilbert said, along the top of the ridge. Also a saw line, about 40 feet wide, had been cut towards the main road.
Jim Kane, a fire officer with the U.S. Forest Service, had a different message for the homeowners.
Kane said the Virginia Creek fire was a classic example of a wildland-urban interface fire, where homes and private property adjoining forested areas put these homes in a higher risk of fire jeopardy than in other areas.
Kane said he didn’t want those attending the meeting to leave with a false sense of security.
“I encourage you to take this seriously,” he said. “We have a plan, a good plan, for fighting this fire. But we’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.”
“You can’t control the weather,” he said, noting that the cooler temperatures and cooperative winds over the weekend were helping fight the fire. The fire crews wanted the fire to burn southeast, away from South Meadow Creek homes, using up the heavy fuel load contained in the forest there, he said.
However, a shift in the wind – predicted for early this week – along with hot, dry weather, could result in the fire shifting, too.
Kane told those gathered for the meeting that there were a couple of triggers that would prompt action:
If the fire jumped below Granite Creek Road, a warning about a possible evacuation would be sent out, he said.
If the fire spread northeast towards South Meadow Creek, and got beyond the switchback on the Granite Creek road, an evacuation was certain.
The South Meadow Creek area was full of fuels, he said.
“You have some time,” Kane said, “move your woodpiles, clear the needles off your roof, there are things you can do to increase the odds of your house surviving a fire.
Kane also told those gathered that because the U.S. is in Fire Plan Level 5, all the federal equipment that was available was committed to firefighting, especially the big fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Kane said there was not a lot of additional firefighting equipment available in Montana and Idaho, and that Hot Shots and firefighting aircraft were “hard to get,” 30 – 45 days out.
“What we have already is what we’re going to get,” Kane said.
Brummell said that the response to this fire included six engines, a tender, and some equipment the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).
Joe Brummell, Madison County Deputy Director of Emergency Management, urged everyone at the meeting to sign up for the Code Red system, either on-line (https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/BF6BD4530FB2) or view the paperwork he had available. Code Red, Brummell said, was the best way to be kept abreast of a need to evacuate and other fire updates.
Those at the meeting lauded the firefighters for their hard work, and had several questions:
Where the fire crews were sleeping? A spike camp near the fire.
Was there a specific evacuation route? There is only one way out, Kane said, to the east, South Meadow Creek Road. “Head towards the bar,” a resident with a sense of humor quipped.
Would back-burning be possible to stem this fire’s route? This would be a gamble, and it would not be wise to do this until the conditions were absolutely right, it might spread the fire.
Could residents use a fireproof wrap to protect their homes? Kane said USFS can get these, but using firefighters to put this on homes instead of fight the fire didn’t make sense. Residents could buy these wraps – and the man asking this question suggested wrapping homes might become a community effort – but getting the wraps here in time was unlikely.
On Sunday, Aug. 5, according to USFS officials, the fire burned towards the west and crews worked to build and strengthen existing containment features on its eastern flank.
Firefighters also worked to keep the fire from advancing past the Meadow Creek and Virginia Creek roads and from burning over the ridgeline above the fire on the southeast side.
Preparations were being made to conduct a burning operation Sunday evening -- if weather conditions were favorable. The plan is to slowly bring the fire to the Virginia Creek and Meadow Creek Roads.
As of Monday, Aug. 6, Virginia Creek Road No. 1249 and trail No. 6314 remained closed in order to provide for the safety of firefighting personnel and public.
Resources from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, DNRC and local firefighters working on the fire were ramped up to 47 personnel including four engines; a water tender; a Helicopter; and one 26-person hand crew.
Sunday evening, crews successfully conducted a burning operation that safely brought the fire to the edges of the Meadow Creek and Virginia Creek Roads and moved the fire to the ridgeline above the fire.
On Monday, if weather conditions remained favorable, fire crews would continue with the burning operation to tie in the west flank of the fire with the ridgeline and bring the fire to the Meadow Creek Road.
Fire personnel are working to keep the fire from advancing past the Meadow Creek and Virginia Creek roads and from burning over the ridgeline above the fire on the southeast side.
Lightning sparks 1.7 acre grass fire along Madison River
ENNIS—Fire season is officially upon the Madison Valley.
A small grass fire burned south of Ennis on Wednesday evening, August 1, started by a lightning strike that damaged a power pole. The fire, which burned on the east side of the Madison River, burned less than half an acre before firefighters had it contained.
The fire was sparked just after 7 p.m., and Madison Valley Rural Fire and members of the U.S. Forest Service responded to calls less than thirty minutes later, reaching the fire site via ranching access roads and dousing the flames.
“We got some great assistance from the ranchers out there, who got us access,” says MVRF chief Sean Christensen. Access was the main concern once responders heard where the fire was burning. “Once we were able to get out there, we had it contained pretty quickly.”
Christensen says most of his crews were back in by 11 p.m. Wednesday evening, but that one Madison Valley Fire crew stayed out much later to assist NorthWestern Energy with taking down the damaged power pole and to ensure that no further hot spots flared up.
Christensen says Harrison and Virginia City fire crews were also on standby because of concerns about the high winds that were blowing through the valley as the fire burned, but their services didn’t end up being needed.
“If this had been a couple weeks from now, it would have been a lot more serious,” says U.S. Forest Service ranger Jim King. King noted that the grass and ground of the valley are much less dry this year than they usually are, which made the fire easier for crews to contain.
The difference between 2018 and other years is marked. The Montana Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee, in coordination with the Montana State Library, publishes monthly drought reports and maps that illustrate the drought status of all of Montana’s counties.
This year, Madison County had a moisture status of slightly moist. While it sounds a bit bizarre, it’s a rating that means the county has seen more precipitation and moisture saturation than the average year. In comparison, Madison County was around average at this time last year and rated “slightly dry” in 2016.
The differences are not unique to Madison County, either. Thirty-five of Montana’s 56 counties are currently seeing lower-than-average drought risks, which is a good thing for firefighters. An exceptionally wet spring has turned the state nearly entirely blue on a map that is usually fully red by August.
By the end of Wednesday evening, residents were taking to social media to express their gratitude for the responders’ promptness.
“Thank you to all the fire crews and responders,” wrote Brandy Hilton on Facebook. “We are so blessed to have all of you in our community.”
“You all rock!” agreed Leslie Lukas. “From dispatch to the ones out and about, sincere respect and thanks!”
Another South Meadow Creek fire
ENNIS — Lightning ignited a fire in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest, on South Meadow Creek on Wednesday, July 25.
The fire was reported at 10:30 p.m., and was visible from both the Madison River valley, near McAllister, and the Ruby River valley, near Sheridan
According to forest officials, firefighters from the Madison Ranger District and Madison Valley Rural Fire Department provided the initial response that evening.
The fire was located about half a mile southeast of South Meadow Lake in the Tobacco Root Mountains and was burning at an elevation of 9,000 feet.
The terrain was very steep, inaccessible and has large amounts of standing dead trees which fueled the fire.
Firefighters were initially not able to engage the fire because in the difficult terrain there was no adequate way to provide timely medical care in case of injuries. On July 26, a helicopter was used to drop water on the fire to cool it and minimize spread.
Fire personnel remained vigilant and sought out opportunities to engage the fire in areas with better access along ridgelines and road systems.
On Friday, Aug. 3, fire crews checked the fire and saw no smoke and felt no heat. Crews will continue to monitor this fire.
The fire burned one tenth of an acre.
National forest visitors are advised to be cautious with fire, make sure campfires are completely out and cool to the touch before leaving, and keep vehicles on roads since grass and shrubs are dry and can easily catch fire.
For more information, contact the Madison District office 682-4253, in Ennis.
- More information -
• For more information call the Madison Ranger District at (406) 682-4253.
• For information about this fire and other fires across the country, go online to http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/.
• For more information on how to prepare your home for wildfires, to eliminate risks, visit firewise.org.