Fire Drama Plays Out In Seeley Lake

Aug 2, 2017

As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, firefighters were having an easier day on the Rice Ridge Fire than Tuesday. The cold front that moved in overnight moderated temperatures and raised humidity levels. That's according to Mark DeGregorio, a spokesman for the Rice Ridge firefighting team. 

"The fire behavior I think could be characterized as moderate today," DeGregorio said, "certainly more moderate than it was yesterday."

Predicted high winds overnight Tuesday into Wednesday did not materialize in Seeley Lake, but Tuesday was still a pretty scary day, as the entire town was put on an evacuation warning due to the Rice Ridge Fire.

When I got to Seeley Lake about 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, there was a tall, broad and dark smoke column erupting off of Rice Ridge northeast of town, tongues of bright orange flame were occasionally visible within it.

The command center for the fire is at Seeley Lake Elementary School, and inside the pair of public information officers on duty were busy with phone calls from concerned locals.

Duane Tewa, an incident commander trainee on the fire, said that it moved closer to town before the sun even came up Tuesday morning.

"It made it about a mile and a half overnight, so that's pretty significant for us, especially at night," Tewa said. "Kind of gives you an indication of how dry the conditions are when we have that type of movement at night."

That movement prompted fire managers to consult with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, which sent officers out to issue an evacuation warning for the entire town of Seeley Lake.

"Which probably took 4-6 hours to finally complete that task for those folks," Tewa said.

At the time, Seeley Lake was under a smoke-trapping temperature inversion, which prompted health officials to label the air quality “hazardous."

But, the inversion kept the fire from growing as fast at it might have. And then, about 3:00 in the afternoon, Tewa says, the inversion lifted. 

"So obviously when that happened , it's kind of like opening up the flue on a fireplace, where that fire activity will start to get the air and convection going and really start to build," Tewa said.

The Rice Ridge Fire smoke plume seen from the Seeley Lake Elementary school parking lot about 6pm Tuesday
Credit Eric Whitney

Shortly after that, I ran into James Treser at Rovero's gas station and hardware store in town. People were lined up along the highway outside marveling at the big, menacing smoke plume on Rice Ridge, while across the road behind them, the Liberty Fire was raising its own, big, white mushroom cloud from further away.

Treser said he'd been doing some last minute logging at his house, dropping nearby trees to reduce fire danger.

"We are packing up, and a little bit on standby and waiting, a little bit," Treser said. "But we're prepared. We already know where we're going if we do have to leave. But I definitely have a little more logging to do, if they give me time."

Tresser said his wife was at home boxing up heirlooms and important papers.

"And my job is moving all the guns and ammo,” he said, laughing, “the other important stuff.

"So, that's kinda what we're doing, and finding a place for our animals, just a dog and a cat, and making sure everything is well watered, and after that we're going to head down to town or head to camp at a friends house.”

A DC-10 slurry bomber passes over Seeley Lake about 6:30 Tuesday evening
Credit Eric Whitney

Shortly after I talked to Treser, there was a noticable uptick in airplane noise in Seeley Lake. Numerous single and twin-engine planes were going overhead, and I saw a big DC-10 jet engined slurry bomber make a couple of passes as well. Out on Seeley Lake, itself a pair of propeller driven super scooper planes were doing laps, skimming across the lake's surface, filling up with water and then looping just a few miles over highway 93 to drop it on Rice Ridge.

Back at Incident command, Duane Tewa said the planes were buying fire managers valuable time. 

“Initially we did not have very much available to us, given the fact that there's all the other fires in the area," Tewa said. "But as the fire moved, within the last 24 hours really kind of pushed us, and understanding that we had the potential to impact the Seeley Lake Community, that kind of bumped us up a little bit on the priority list for aviation.

"So, the first opportunity we had once the inversion lifted, it was made clear to us that if we order it we're likely going to get it. So what you saw today was that indication that it was available to us and we were going to use it to our fullest advantage.”

A super scooper takes on water from Seeley Lake with the Rice Ridge Fire pumping out smoke behind it to the west about 8:30 Tuesday evening
Credit Eric Whitney

Fire managers were concerned about the cold front predicted to come in overnight that could push the fire south and west and closer to town.

“With the easterly flow coming more into the morning and early morning, that as this heat of the day starts to happen, that's going to be kind of our concern, with that easterly flow pushing the fire back to the west towards Highway 83 corridor," Tewa said.

Fire team spokesman Mark DeGregorio said that, as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, at least, those strong easterly winds hadn't been a concern.

"There starting to shift around now," DeGregorio said. "We're starting to get more out of the south and southwest now. I would characterize them as breezy. Not windy, but a steady breeze, probably about eight to 12 miles an hour."

The type three incident management team Tewa is with is transitioning out to make way for a higher level type 2 team that's scheduled to take over management of the fire later.