After nearly 48 hours of worry, exhaustion and frustration, residents of Finley Point displaced by the Boulder 2700 fire received welcome news on Monday evening when the Lake Don Bell County Sheriff announced that most would be allowed to return to the region from Tuesday afternoon.
The announcement came during a community meeting that drew about 300 people to the Polson High School gymnasium. Several hundred more attended the meeting remotely via Zoom, although the technical limitations and acoustics of the setting made it difficult for many to hear Zoom audio.
Bell said those who provide proof of residency can acquire a vehicle pass at a checkpoint along Montana 35. Many have expressed concern over their ability to prove residency as they quickly fled on Saturday night. and many had left most of the personal documents behind. Bell assured everyone that the authorities would work with them and that any digital receipt on their phone, such as an electricity bill or a receipt for a parcel delivery, would suffice. The sheriff stressed the importance of keeping non-residents out of the area until the blaze is under control.
Bell said access to Finley Point will be available as far north as Mahood Lane, slightly more than halfway between mile markers 7 and 8.
âIt’s the cutoff point, I’m afraid,â Bell said. “Sorry.”
Rick Connel arrived on Sunday with the Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team who took over management of the fire on Monday. Connel, who serves as the incident commander, warned residents that access could be brief given the volatility of the fire.
âIf we get hot and dry again, that fire can still move,â Connel said. “We’re going to be watching this for a very long time.”
As of Tuesday morning, the fire was listed on 1,416 acres with 0% containment, and the National Weather Service predicted high temperatures in the 90s with no precipitation and mild winds Tuesday through Thursday.
âAs much as you want, you have to be prepared to relocate again,â Connel said. He also reminded everyone to stay out of the fire zone. “If we see people there wandering around, we have to stop the operations.”
CONNEL SAYS the stretch of highway north of Finley Point between mile posts 8 and 13 would remain closed for “days, not weeks”, although he added that it is almost impossible to set a precise timeframe for this access . Several structures have been lost along this stretch of the highway, although an exact damage tally has yet to be released.
Robyn Broyles, a fire communications specialist at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said after the meeting that the teams were still investigating the houses and other structures and more specific figures would be released in the coming days. Initially, it was reported that up to 20 structures, including around eight houses, were lost.
Craig Morigeau, superintendent of operations and construction for Mission Valley Power, said the fire caused extensive damage to the Finley Point main line, leaving the area without power. He said MVP crews were coordinating with incident commanders and would begin mainline repairs on Tuesday morning.
Communication was another topic of much discussion at the community meeting. Many expressed frustration with how they initially faced the fire and the lack of useful information following the evacuations.
Broyles said the best place for the most recent official information is the website known as InciWeb, inciweb.nwcg.gov. Connel’s team also arrived with several public information officers, and he assured everyone that communication would improve.
Lake County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Clary stressed the importance of signing up for emergency alerts from the county’s Hyperlink system, which can send alerts quickly to targeted areas. Registration can be done on the county’s website, lakemt.gov.
Clary said he issued alerts on Saturday before going to the scene and had already seen plenty of people on his way to the exit by the time he arrived.
â(Hyperlink) saved lives,â Clary said. “I know it is.”
In addition to the Type 2 team, there are also very dynamic initial attack teams from the Flathead and Helena areas on site, along with a bulldozer and three engines. Helicopters and planes continue to collect water from Lake Skidoo Bay to put out the fires. Bell said the bay is closed to all boats.
âPeople have to stay out of there,â he said. âAnd let me tell you, the consequences will be very serious. We still have planes there, and if you take a boat, you could end up crashing a $ 15 million plane and putting lives in danger. – do their job. “
Also at Monday’s meeting were Shelly Fyant, President of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Shana Radford, Flathead Agency Superintendent for the Office of Indian Affairs, as well as several fire managers. Fyant said the three members of the Montana congressional delegation reached out to offer assistance.
Tony Harwood, director of the planning and inventory division for CSKT, described the dire conditions in the area and how the blaze got out of hand.
Harwood said a combination of severe regional drought and hot weather has led to “the most critical conditions in decades.”
FIRE originated early Saturday morning near a US Forest Service road in the southeast quadrant of the current fire zone. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Harwood said crews brought the blaze to the south under control by early evening. A night shift was on the scene when an “exceptional wind event” with gusts of up to 30 mph pushed the ridge fire eastward toward the lake shore. The strong wind blew embers that crossed the containment line.
CSTK’s fire division director Ron Swaney was among the first responders who arrived after things got out of hand on Saturday night.
“We all rushed in, came under fire and identified where it was coming from.” They also identified structures at risk and started telling people to leave the area.
âWe could tell we were in trouble,â Swaney said. âThings were going pretty fast.
He said the fire kept staining and spreading. The fact that the fire was moving downward made it particularly difficult to control and created a dangerous situation for firefighters.
“He just kept going down the slope, then started pushing north. This thing just kept pushing.”
Bob McCrae, also of the CSKT fire division, praised the response of the area fire departments.
âEvery Bigfork fire department in Arlee was responding to help you,â he said.
âThis is something we haven’t seen in this area in forever, it seems. We put a line around this fire and thought we were in good shape. Mother Nature reminded us that she was in charge. “
Several panelists expressed their gratitude to Connel’s team and first responders who risked their lives to save as many properties as possible.
“They got into the line of fire so blessed,” to still be alive, Sheriff Bell said. âPlease be patient with them. Many of them worked over 40 hoursâ in just a few days.
As for donations, Connel said his crews really don’t need anything from the community.
âWe give them 5,000 calories a day, so they’re taken care of,â he said. “I’m not saying they don’t appreciate pizza or ice cream every now and then, but if you want to help you should focus on your neighbors, the local firefighters and the Red Cross.”