Early yesterday afternoon John Thompson, the incident commander on the Rice Ridge Fire outside Seeley Lake was getting ready for some big challenges.
“There is thunderstorm activity to the north of us, and thunder activity to the west of us," he said. "And one of the challenges of thunderstorms over a fire is the unpredictability of the winds that occur. It’s really hard to set up an operation when the wind is spinning 360 degrees over the span of ten to fifteen minutes.”
This was soon after a red flag fire weather warning went into effect across most of Montana, and two days after more than a thousand Seeley Lake homes were evacuated.
By mid-afternoon the Missoula County Sheriff's office expanded an evacuation warning north of town - taking in an additional 90 homes. With the potential for rapidly changing fire conditions, owners were told should prepare to leave quickly if necessary.
The new warning area included both sides of Highway 83 from the Tamarack Resort to Bear Grass, extending to Bear Grass Lane, Loon Lane and Camp Creek.
A couple minutes drive north outside of Seeley Lake, inside that new warning zone, Steve Thompson was loading a trailer with a friend.
“This trailer, this camp trailer that’s parked here we’re going to move that to the other side of the lake," Thompson said. "And that truck hooked to a trailer with some snow mobiles and stuff on it and we’re moving that.”
The fire teams set up sprinklers around the perimeter of his yard. Thompson has his own sprinklers set up too and he say’s he’ll leave them running, pumping water in woods around his house, if he is ordered to leave.
A few houses down the road Jaycee McGraves had her Harleys loaded up on a trailer. Even before the warning was issued, her family started packing up. Yesterday when they heard they should get ready to leave, they made sure everything was ready to go on short notice.
When local law enforcement showed up to her house that afternoon, they gave them a yellow sheet of paper explaining the evacuation warning. They told her the coming weather was concerning.
“Well they’ve got a system that’s coming through with some high winds, they were talking about, some 50 mile an hour winds coming through that could change things real quick in a heartbeat," McGraves said. "Thunderstorms, dry lighting and so forth. That was the real big concerns they were having for today and tomorrow. So you just hope all for the good and it just blows east. That’s all we can hope for. ”
Yesterday fire crews focused on rebuilding lines and keeping the flames from moving past targeted areas, with particular attention given to the fire’s northwest, southwest, and southeast perimeter - where it’s nearest to the homes and businesses in Seeley Lake.
Smoke initially clouded the view of aviation attack on the fire, and a helicopter was grounded until around noon, when visibility became good enough to fly and begin water dumps.
The time when a smoke inversion lifts can signal the start of higher winds and a harder day. But that didn’t happen, and by evening, the firefighters on the day shift started returning to camp, there would be no big battle.
Although the wind blew down some snags making fighters work more difficult on the western boundary of the fire, Charles Tuss, a section chief, said crews left the day shift with fire lines in good shape.
He said winds were expected to slow down around 10 in the evening, although there would still be a lot of burning overnight because the temperature in the fire area was still high.
Tuss said the red flag weather warning that started yesterday afternoon is expected to build up more today.
“It will probably develop more into tomorrow [Thurs. 8/31] morning and the next day. As we all know weather is pretty dynamic and can change a lot," Tuss said.
He expects today and Friday to continue being difficult days for firefighting crews, as fickle weather threatens to encourage the flames.
A community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Community Center in Seeley Lake.