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Space junk possible explanation for Big Arm fire

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BIG ARM — Reports about space debris falling from a Chinese satellite’s rocket body over the Western United States fueled one man’s curiosity about a fire near Walking Horse Lane at 11 p.m. Saturday.

A Big Arm resident and volunteer firefighter, Matt Sisler responded to the fire with 15 other Polson and Rural Fire District volunteers. 

When he first saw the fire, it was huge, with 10-foot flames shooting up in a large circle. 

“The grass was frozen and slippery so the fire had to be really hot to ignite it,” Sisler said.

As the fire got further and further away from the circle, the flames were three to four feet high, Sisler said.

He thinks it’s possible a chunk of metal or a shard of glass could have fallen from the rocket carcass and ignited the fire. 

“It travels at 15,000 mph and orbits the earth once every 87 hours,” Sisler said. 

It would take 3.625 days for a rocket remnant to orbit the earth once and fall, according to Sisler’s calculations.

The American Meteor Society received more than 195 reported sightings on and around Feb. 24 around 11 p.m. in Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Alberta and British Columbia, according to its website at 

If anything fell, Sisler said it was predicted to fall in Canada, but Big Arm is only a couple of hours from the Canadian border. 

Sisler returned to the fire site the next morning to retrieve a fire department gas can lost on a bumpy logging road on Jeff Veach’s property. Veach allowed fire trucks to haul water to extinguish the fire on the hillside above Walking Horse Lane. 

Sisler and landowner Veach walked the area to see if they could determine the fire’s cause.

“It was a lot of burnt grass,” Veach said. “We just couldn’t figure out what caused the fire, there were no storms.”

Veach said Sisler got him thinking about the satellite reentering the atmosphere. A friend of Veach’s got on his computer and told about the rocket body’s debris trail passing right over the area.

“It would make an interesting story. It is a possibility,” Veach said.

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