In the first public meeting since learning that homes had been lost to the Caribou fire, a crowd of 300 vented their frustrations with fire managers over their handling of the Caribou and Gibralter Ridge Fires Monday night in the auditorium at the high school in Eureka.
Crowd member: Would you mind answering the question? The question was, are we a test bed for not suppressing fires in their infancy?
Incident Commander Shawn Pearson: We are not a test bed.
Crowd member: You’re not answering the question. Sacrificial lamb!
The Caribou Fire burning along the Canadian border northwest of Eureka made a staggering run last weekend, covering two miles on Friday and another four on Saturday through some of the driest conditions fire managers say they’ve ever seen. The Lincoln County Sheriff has confirmed that at least 10 houses and up to 30 structures were lost after more than 400 people were hurriedly evacuated from the small village of West Kootenai on Saturday.
Many of the people who attended Monday night’s fire briefing blame the fire’s aggressive growth on poor management.
"My name's Don Carvey, and this fire was 40 acres at one time, and my observation is that it was 70 percent, or 75 percent to be observed and 25 percent to be put out. Now I don't know about you, but that was negligent. It should have been put out when it was 40 acres. Every 3rd grade child knows that you put a damn campfire out, and it was not put out. And that's the leadership we got from our forest ranger."
Fire officials say the Caribou Fire was already burning 50 to 75 acres by the time it was discovered on August 11 after lightning ignited it three days earlier.
Bryan Donner is the District Ranger on this area of the Kootenai National Forest.
"There was a delay in detecting that because conditions were so smokey in the area that there was a fire in the area and we had no idea a fire was there until one day, one of our observation planes just happened to fly by and picked it up, almost by happenstance."
Donner says the fire moved quicker than expected and handily tore through control lines built along old logging roads, as well as through patches of forest that had been previously harvested. On top of that, fire crews were and continue to be short staffed, says Fire Operations Section Chief Kevin Chaffee.
"We've got 12 outstanding orders for fire crews, 20 person crews. We only have three crews on the fire right now. We have 12 outstanding orders just because of the shortage of resources. I'm not up here to make excuses, I'm just telling you what we've ordered and what we have on the fire currently."
At this point, Shawn Pearson, the incident commander of the Type 2 team that took control of both the Caribou and Gibralter Ridge Fires last Wednesday, says crews are struggling to hold dozer line that extends around West Kootenai and eastward to Lake Koocanusa.
"We're holding a ton of line right now with about 75 people. The folks out there are holding on by their fingernails. They’re bumping from a spot to another spot. We’re trying to patrol the lines. And I know you guys don't want to hear that, but that’s the situation that we are dealing with right now."
On top of the struggle to protect structures in West Kootenai is the challenge of safely moving people away from dangerous areas. West Kootenai has a sizable Amish population. They don’t have phones or cars, so Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe had his officers go door to door to alert people about the fast-changing conditions Friday and Saturday.
"That night of the evacuation we were giving them rides, putting bikes in the back of our vehicles. They were sitting in the rigs and pulling horses."
Sheriff Bowe says about a dozen people have signed waivers to remain on their properties despite the evacuation order. No lives have been lost, but some families have lost everything.
"My name is Dan Demmerly, and I just saw pictures of where my house used to be. First of all, I want to say thank you. I live up on West Kootenai. I have seven children, they all got out safe, praise the lord. That was honestly my biggest concern. I want to thank Bob, who extended his condolences to those who lost structures, cause it’s hard. It’s hard. But, I’m going to encourage everybody here on one thing. It’s easy to point fingers, and I’m very thankful for all who put in effort to make that happen up there, and this is speaking from someone who just lost his home. So be a good neighbor, that’s what it’s going to take right now."
Evacuation orders remain in place for West Kootenai due to the Caribou Fire. Evacuation warnings are in effect for some residences near the Gibralter Ridge Fire.