Montana Outdoors

August 2, 2016

Copper King fire, western Montana

On Sunday, July 31 a wild fire started up at the west end of KooKooSint Ridge about 8 miles east of the small western Montana town of Thompson Falls at about 3:00 PM. In the first few hours it grew to 200 acres.

Meanwhile, a close friend was working with a contingent of volunteers on the restoration of the lookout cabin on Big Hole Peak which is located about three miles from the fire and directly down wind from it. At about 5:00 the restoration crew was evacuated from the lookout so my friend (who had hiked up to work in the morning) had the pleasure of another three mile hike back down to the staging area and return to the valley leaving most of his equipment behind.

On Monday morning the Forest Service sent a crew by helicopter up to the Big Hole Lookout to retrieve all of the equipment and wrap the cabin with fire resistant material. By then the fire had grown to 700 acres.  While we had nothing much else to do we decided to see if we could go get a good look at the fire, and made the drive up to the Eddy Peak lookout which is on the other side of the Clark Fork Valley about two miles due south of the fire. That lookout is manned and has a road up to about half a mile from the lookout itself. We arrived at the tower just in time to see an air tanker drop its entire load of retardant on the fire. I had barely enough time to change my camera to a telephoto lens before the retardant run began. It was a great opportunity for a few photos and a rare opportunity to photograph a big air tanker run from above. (The fire was at an elevation of about 5500 feet and the Eddy Peak lookout sits at about 7000 feet.) The photos of the tanker run were taken from the lookout tower.

The air tanker is a four engine jet I believe to be owned by Neptune Aviation in Missoula Montana and it’s a BAe 146 (#02) aircraft which carries a load of 3000 gallons of retardant (about twelve tons).

Photos from the base of the Eddy Peak lookout overlooking the Clark Fork Valley:

Clark Fork Valley from Eddy Peak

Clark Fork Valley from Eddy Peak

Clark Fork Valley from Eddy Peak

Clark Fork Valley from Eddy Peak

Copper King fire

Sequence of photos of the air tanker retardant run:

Copper King fire

Copper King fire

Copper King fire

Copper King fire


Copper King fire

Copper King fire

July 2, 2009

The restoration

A few days ago, while searching for a location in which to cut next winter’s firewood supply, I chose to visit the area burned by the Chippy Creek fire in the Cabinet Mountains of western Montana. It burned for nearly all the month of August in 2007 and blackened an area of 150 square miles, 10 miles wide and 15 miles long. This photo was taken on August 4 of 2007 from a distance of about 6 miles only a few days after it began.

Chippy Creek Fire

The area I visited on Tuesday was located over the ridge and just about under the center of those tall smoke columns and was pretty thoroughly burned. As She always does, Nature immediately began the process of healing and regeneration, and in admiration I see that She has not forgotten how important the beauty of wildflowers is through the process.

One of the first wildflowers to grow in a burn, Fireweed beginning its blossom period:


Penstemons at the base of a burned Douglas Fir:


Fireweed in it’s bud stage and Penstemons with a section of the fire-killed trees in the background:


In a couple of our lifetimes or a brief moment in Nature’s eternity the forest will be completely whole again.

May 31, 2009

Elegant Mariposa Lily

Elegant Mariposa Lily

Northwest Mariposa Lily,
Elegant Cat’s Ear
Calochortus elegans

April 7, 2009

It has begun

Spring around here starts off not only the wildflower season, but another season as well; the wildfire season. This afternoon we responded to the first wildland fire of this year. We haven’t received our usual amount of spring rain and the woods are already very dry: it looks like it will be a long, long summer if we don’t get more rain!

Before the fire call came though I was able to find a few wildflowers. The Buttercups have been out for over a month and now just seem to cover the ground in places. Yellowbells have also been out for a while now and have become more numerous too. (They are a western wildflower and grow only in eleven western states.) Fritillaria pudica

Yellowbell, Goldcup, Fritillaria pudica

Yellowbell, Goldcup

Another tiny western flower, the Woodland Star, began to bloom only in the past few days.

Bulbous woodland-star, lithophragma glabrum

Woodland Star

Since I greatly prefer the wildflowers, I am hoping for a lot more rain!

October 13, 2008

So much depends on the wind

Yesterday afternoon our local Rural Fire Department responded to a wildland fire. A whole bunch of fire departments just outside of L.A. responded to fires too. By dark, we had ours contained, while in southern California, homes were burning. We had a gentle breeze; they had Santa Anna winds with gusts up to 65 mph. What a difference the wind makes!

It was a great feeling last night, returning to the hall knowing that we had responded quickly, worked hard, cooperated well with other responding departments, and brought the fire under control with no loss of life or structures. There was also a feeling of gratefulness that the wind was not an issue in this case.

Until now I have not been able to take photos of a fire scene because there are so many more urgent things to do, but today when we returned to recover pieces of equipment and the situation was no longer urgent, I was able to take a few photos of the area to take home for my wife to see and to post here. (Some wives like to see where their husbands work: some really don’t!)

This fire began in a cattail swamp near the top of a small mountain a dozen miles from town. There were about a dozen homes in the immediate area. In the first photo, one home can be seen in the background, not far from the scene of the fire. I’m sure that was one anxious family!

Fire scene at "the swamp"

Wildland fire at "the swamp"

Fire scene at "the swamp"

You will have to take my word for it, the hill behind this scene was a lot steeper than the lens thinks it is!

Fire scene at "the swamp"

We were able to stop the advance of the fire before it entered the forest at this spot.

Fire scene at "the swamp"

The tracks of a brush truck going right through the fire to secure the far end.

Fire scene at "the swamp"

One of the keys to rapid response and success in fighting wildland fires has been the invention and production of “brush trucks”. They enable departments to attack new fires very quickly and efficiently. They are very maneuverable and have lots of capabilities.

The next photos are of the one I usually have the privilege to drive. It has been in many places where trucks just aren’t supposed to go and I’m getting very fond of it! The basic truck is a reinforced 4 wheel drive 1 ton pickup (this one has the big 7.4 liter Power Stroke diesel engine).

Rural Fire "brush truck"

The tall red tank with the “stack” on top is a 300 gallon water tank. To the right of it is a reel containing 150 feet of pressure hose. After the truck is brought to a stop and shifted into “park”, in about a minute this hose can be putting a solid stream of water (or foam) on a fire.

Rural Fire "brush truck"

At the very rear of the truck is the key to the whole operation, a versatile pump system that can draw from the on-board water tank, a pond set up on the scene, a river or creek, or another truck with a water supply. It can supply a water source to hundreds of yards of hoses and multiple nozzles.

Rural Fire "brush truck"

Once again, last night our brush trucks proved their worth… and in this case the wind was in our favor!

September 18, 2007

Rapid response

The evening was slightly cooler than the day had been and clouds covered the sky to the southwest, the direction from which weather always approaches. From the TV the sportscaster’s voices droned on, peaked with excitement at a nice play and then leveled off going into a commercial: the game was reasonably interesting but not what might be thought of as exciting. Through the south windows came a bright flash, then another. Lightning; hopefully, just “heat” lightning (the local term for cloud-to-cloud) strikes. Ten more minutes, then the unmistakable booms of thunder were heard and the tall pines near the front of the house began to bow before the wind. The cat slunk, low-to-the-floor, into the nearest bedroom to seek sanctuary under the bed from the clamor of the storm. We were being hammered!

A slight press on the “check” button of the pager yielded the high-pitched “beep” that meant that it was OK, and attention shifted back to the game, for however long it would last before power went out as it so often did during these brief but violent storms.

Only minutes passed before the pager began emitting its initial burst of loud shrieking tones followed by the usual burst of static and then the voice of dispatch: “Rural Fire, Rural Fire, please respond to a lightning strike and fire at 11 Sunset Drive and also at 9 Sunset Drive”. The message was repeated again before the Jeep was fired up and pointed toward the fire hall four miles away and several more times before arrival there.

The doors of two bays of the fire hall were already open as the Jeep slid to a stop in the parking area in front of the building, and one of the brush trucks was outside; the engine of the one behind it was just turning over. A quick dash into the hall, a few seconds to slide into the waiting boots, pull up the bulky trousers, grab the heavy coat and helmet, then a run to the waiting truck. Hardly more than five minutes now since the first burst from the pager.

As I climbed into the cab of the second truck I could see that the driver was our Chief. I had only met and talked with him a few times, but he seemed to know his business and was a very dedicated firefighter. He had eight years of experience with rural fire departments in a couple of different states. This was my first fire response and tonight I would get to know him much better!

The first truck was headed to the scene which turned out to be about five miles to the north, and our truck was less than a minute behind. The flashes of red, blue, yellow and white that reflected from the trees and hillsides as we passed were a little distracting, and the sound of the siren seemed to come from far away as its echoes came back to us, but it was really right overhead, just a couple of feet away.

There was a short adrenalin rush, caused by the interest in a new situation, but it was suddenly amplified by additional information from dispatch. “Occupants of the structure at 11 Sunset Drive require assistance in getting out of the building”; not good news (I wonder exactly what that means, but will find out in a couple more minutes.) Dispatch again: “The wind is moving the fire to the North and it’s about to enter the timber”. The adrenalin level increased considerably more: that was not good news either!

Another mile and another burst from dispatch: “The occupants of 11 Sunset Drive no longer require assistance: that has been taken care of”. That was good news! Must have been done by law enforcement. The fire was now in sight and the first glance showed that it consisted of a circle of flame three to seven feet high and about fifty yards in diameter. The structures were about one hundred yards north of the county road, and the wind was moving the fire directly toward them.

As we entered the gravel drive, we could see that the flames extended completely across the yard in front of the main house and had swept past it on the east side, burning grass and brush and down trees and heading toward the timber. The first truck pulled up and stopped in front and to the east of the house, which put it behind the fire and in a position to attack the flames threatening the front and side of the structure. There was a driveway around to the west side, and the Chief swung our truck around that way, proceeding around the structure and continuing on until we were directly in front of the fire, between it and the timber where we plowed to a stop. Immediately I knew that the Chief was OK. It took confidence and nerve in equal proportions to commit to that position. This was a guy I could get along with! A no-nonsense leader.

Before the truck came to a complete stop we were out and at the back (the business end) of the truck. The Chief started the pump motor, grabbed the hose nozzle, released the detent on the hose reel and headed toward the flames, yelling for me to activate the remaining controls of the pump and feed him hose. It was a beautiful thing to see fifty feet of flame-killing foam pouring out of the nozzle, completely snuffing the leading wall of flames as he swept it across the fire front. Twenty minutes into the attack and the progress of the forward wall of the fire was stopped. The other unit had also successfully stopped the flames at the front of the structure, and at the same time saved an RV which had flames right up against one side when we arrived.

Another hour and a half of pouring foam and water on the fire, sometimes from within its perimeter, interrupted by a second brief response to a call for a power line down situation a few miles away, then an hour of “mop up” in the dark and the incident came to a successful conclusion.

There were no injuries, nothing of value lost, no damage to equipment, and some valuable experience obtained by this new member of Rural Fire. Rapid response and a fast and aggressive attack had saved two homes and perhaps a million dollars worth of timber.

Note: I know this is a little different than my usual posts, but it does describe a little bit of another facet of the world outside the cities. I hope it provides a little insight into what it can sometimes be like in the interesting world of emergency response.

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