The night the Elmo reached Fire Chief Cliff Lane, the closest Lake County Sheriff was Don Bell said he once initiated an emergency evacuation. He and a sheriff’s deputy went door to door along the street where houses have been built amid rugged terrain in an elevated area between the communities of Elmo and Dayton.
“I don’t know how far it was, but it’s raining ashes on us and it’s dark. It’s so thick with smoke all over us. So I knew it was close,” Bell said of the fire. “I mean, if we had waited 15 minutes, people who had been in the house would have been burned.”
Mixed with the falling ash were embers, the sheriff said, and at one house he told a resident they had no more than two minutes before they had to go. There were eight homes in the street that he and the deputy cleared. The next day, three were burned.
‘All that’s left is concrete and metal. There’s no organic material left,” Bell said of the losses on one property.
By August 8, when this story went to print, the Elmo Fire had been burning for 11 days, destroying eight buildings and growing to over 20,000 acres. Hundreds of people have been affected by a combination of evacuation orders and pre-evacuation orders, some of which began easing over the weekend.
The Elmo Fire first ignited on the afternoon of Friday, July 29, less than 10 miles west of the town of Elmo in the Big Draw area off Highway 28, and with high temperatures and gusts from the west, it soon began to destroy homes. threaten to the East. The man-made fire started just days before the one-year anniversary of the man-made Boulder 2700 Fire, which forced Polson-area residents to flee at night as flames entered their homes. The Boulder 2700 Fire, later determined to have been caused by arson, destroyed 31 buildings, including 14 main residences.
For those who live in the parts of Lake County and the Flathead Indian Reservation where the Elmo fire has threatened lives and livelihoods, those 11 days since the fire started have sparked waves of emotions – fear, optimism, frustration, determination – all. ebb and flow in the minds and hearts of those who watch the changing landscape of smoke and flames as a sign of things to come.
Ardyce Fowler is still trying to figure out what’s in store for her. Fowler, 73, was among those who lost their homes to the Elmo Fire. She had lived on Chief Cliff Lane for five years and had moved there from California with her husband, Vern. The house they’d lived in was built of logs and stood at the end of a dirt road, and when they bought it, it was a little worse worn. But they saw something in it, and in the promise to come to Montana. When Ardyce Fowler talks about their home, she uses the phrase “home forever.” She said her husband did about 80% of the work to fix it up. The house had a view of the lake and they spent time on the water sailing, kayaking and building memories as they traveled through the 1970s together.
Vern Fowler died of a pulmonary embolism at their home last September. It was the beginning of what Ardyce Fowler called “a hectic, traumatic year.” She made it through the winter on her own and by the end of it, she felt like she was doing well.
“I’ve grown in ways I never would have understood,” she said.
The devastation of the fire initially left her feeling numb.
“Everything is surreal. Literally, it’s like, ‘how can this be?’ And as you can process more, more comes in where you have to acknowledge it and go, “That’s gone too.” The other day I wanted to go to church and I thought, ‘I only have flip flops. I’m going home to get some good shoes.’ Oh no, I only have flip flops. Everything is gone.”
Fowler said her friends, family, church and others have stood up “and hugged me, and loved me, and supported me and I can’t complain. There are people who have lost more than me.”
“If I can help someone going through hard times, and they can say, ‘An old widow can do this, I can do it,’ then it serves a purpose and it’s not for nothing,” Fowler said.
Fowler evacuated the day the fire started. She was able to collect some of her important papers, and photos and a small inventory of other items: a toothbrush, a hairbrush, a few changes of clothes, her father’s bible, her dog “and a lot of fond memories”.
She has been escorted back to the property once since the fire claimed it. She found the metal roof of her house on the floor, with nothing in between. She took pictures to share with her insurance company.
Since leaving her house, Fowler has been staying with friends and has found a place to get through the winter. A GoFundMe launched on her behalf has been a blessing, she said, adding that the most important part has not been the money, but the love and recognition she feels from people who have chosen to give. Fowler said she wants to stay in Montana, but knows there are challenges for housing right now, so she’s trying to determine the best next step.
“This is my house. This is my heart. Here I am blessed, and just because there was a fire doesn’t mean I want to leave,” she said. “If I sat in a pool of tears and cried and saying, ‘Woe is me’, would that improve my situation? No, it wouldn’t. So I won’t allow that. I’m not afraid of tears, I don’t think they’re wrong, but right now I have bigger fish to fry.”
At the time the Beacon was printed, the largest structural losses had occurred on Monday, August 1; however, firefighters have had some hard times since then, underscoring the extreme behavior of the fire. On August 3, conditions on the north side of the fire reached a point where firefighters had to withdraw from mounting safety concerns. On August 4, firefighters faced their fourth day of red flag conditions as the northern edge of the fire continued to advance into the Lake Mary Ronan area. A day earlier, incident commander John Thompson had said that crews generally don’t see that many consecutive days of what I might call firefighting that kicks us in the butt every day.
Due to the limited demand for firefighting equipment elsewhere in the region, the Elmo Fire is well staffed. At one point, six scooper planes were assigned to the fire, which Thompson said was the most he’d ever seen converge on a single fire. Those planes dropped an estimated 600,000 gallons of water on the fire on Aug. 4 as it made its way into Lake Mary Ronan on Aug. 4, allowing firefighters to continue building construction shelters and keep the fire south of the lake. By August 8, the fire had been assigned 616 personnel, which is more than about 120 the day it started.
The weather, at least last weekend, took a favorable turn for the firefighters, who reported Monday that the fire was 55% under control, a 40% increase from last Friday. From August 5 to 7, the fire reportedly grew by 163 hectares, or an average of about 54 hectares per day. New containment gains were reported along parts of the western and eastern sides of the fire, consistent with an area along Highway 28 already considered contained. Firefighting costs on the Elmo Fire had reached $10.4 million by Sunday, Aug. 7, the most recent estimates available before the Beacon’s print deadline.
One of the ongoing priorities for firefighters is to prevent the fire from crossing Lake Mary Ronan Road, especially where it runs east of the lake. Earlier, Thompson said he is concerned about the rugged terrain north of there, where homes alternate with a mix of unburned fuels. The site would provide little opportunity for firefighters to stop the fire’s movement and, depending on the fire’s progress, the communities of Rollins and Lakeside could end up on the windward side of the fire.
At an Aug. 5 community meeting, Phil Knaub, Chief of Operations Sections, said John Thompson’s Northern Rockies Team 7 Type 2 incident management team had a week to go before reaching the completion of their assignment, and that as the successes continue to add up, they will be plan to leave things in good order for whoever takes command next time.
However, according to Knaub, firefighters won’t be able to get the fire under control until late August or late September, and a significant weather event must occur to extinguish it completely.
“It’s going to be warm here until it snows. Smoke will probably come out of this fire until it snows, especially at the back,” Knaub said. “There will be a lot of firefighters here for the rest of the season.”
Bruce Giersdorf, a fire behavior analyst at the fire, said the fire hasn’t completely blackened the landscape it has passed through, meaning the area is littered with unburnt fuels that will continue to dry on warm days, with no precipitation in the long — term forecast. That is expected to continue smoking and some fire activity, including in the interior of the fire.
On August 5, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte described the Elmo Fire as the highest priority fire in the state. How long that will remain is uncertain in a landscape that becomes increasingly susceptible to fires and wildfires in the hot, dry days of August. According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services program, Flathead and Lake counties both have above-normal significant wildfire potential for August and September.
On Monday, August 8, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) released a weekly report on the wildfire situation. Last week, state and county-level firefighters responded to 72 fires that burned 16,218 acres, according to the report.
“Tempers are rising again this week, with high winds and thunderstorms predicted,” DNRC noted in its report. “With a higher proportion of firefighting resources deployed to several major wildfires, it’s more important than ever that Montanans and visitors do your part to help prevent man-made wildfires.”