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Boulder fire destroys homes, forces evacuations

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Early Monday morning, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes handed over management of the Boulder 2700 fire, burning eight miles east of Polson, to a Northern Region Type 2 management team. 

CT Camel, fire information officer for CSKT, said the team is geared up to handle major incidents and can bring more resources to bear on the fire. He said the management team is based in Montana and the incident commander is from Kalispell. 

Camel said the official estimate, as of Monday, was still at 1,150 acres as weather has hampered the helicopter crew from conducting a survey. He suspects the fire has burned closer to 2,000 acres. “This little inversion we have isn’t allowing us to get an accurate number,” he said. 

Camel also said the fire spread dramatically Saturday night, from an estimated 76 acres at 6 p.m. to over 1,000 by the following morning. That growth was fueled by high temperatures and 40 mph down-slope winds that kicked up in the middle of the night. 

“It was 90 degrees at 3 a.m. so it was burning like it was daytime,” he said. “Wind and temperature are what caused it to jump the highway.” 

The fire, possibly human-caused, forced the closure of U.S. Highway 35 from its intersection with U.S. Highway 93 to mile-marker 15, and an evacuation order was in place from mile marker 6 to 13. At presstime on Monday, the Lake County Office of Emergency Management estimated that around 20 structures had been lost.

The CSKT Division of Fire fought the fire alongside local volunteer firefighters and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation crews. Five air tankers dropped retardant on the flames while three helicopters and two Canadian-built “supers coopers” lifted water from Flathead Lake and dumped it on the blaze.

According to Camel, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell was in charge of clearing boats from the area so that the planes and helicopters could safely scoop water from the lake. Four bulldozers were also on hand to help contain the fire.

John Mausshardt spent much of Saturday watching the fire blossom near his house up the Boulder drainage in the Mission Mountains. Mausshardt was first evacuated Saturday morning and then allowed to return that afternoon with a warning to pay close attention to the weather. His wife, Kari, who is visiting California with the couple’s sons, texted him detailed lists of what to stash in the couple’s Suburban and pull-behind camper. 

“I had plenty of time to load stuff, legal documents, artwork and family photos – that was our first priority,” he said Sunday in front of the Red Cross evacuee center at Linderman School. “It would have been awful if we only had like 15 minutes to get out.”

The power went out at his house late Saturday night. “It got windy around 8 p.m. and I knew it wasn’t good. The deputy came knocking on my door at 1 a.m. and I was up and out.”

Mission Valley Power’s website showed an outage to 94 residences early Sunday morning. “When I was talking to the sheriff he said power poles were burnt to the ground in that section.”

Despite Sunday’s evacuation order, ceramic artist Mimi Werner spent most of the day at her house and studio on the south side of Finley Point trying to clear fire hazards. “Packing to evacuate is really hard,” she said. “I’ve got my life’s work here.”

Wynnette Keniston and her Siberian husky, Devushka, sat patiently outside the evacuation center Sunday morning. A resident of Cornflower Lane just off Skidoo Bay, she smelled smoke at 4 a.m. and called for help. 

“I could smell it and it scared me,” said the 78-year-old woman. “I started shaking so I found my flashlight because the lights were out and called 911 and told them I smelled smoke and I said I’m sure it’s close by.” Although she has a car, she can’t see well enough to drive at night. 

Dispatch said a rescue crew was on the way, but a neighbor picked her and Devushka up at 4:30 a.m. All she brought was her dog and her phone. 

“I figured my pictures are there and I’ll ask God if he’ll take care of them. Everything else can be replaced – but not your life, not your loved ones, your memories, your pictures,” she said. “I’m just really happy we made it out OK because I have a lot of life to live.”

Lynn Lagerquist, a volunteer with Life Savers Animal Rescue, offered to house Devushka so that Keniston could take refuge inside Linderman, since the center doesn’t allow animals. “Our organization has foster homes and people ready to take in animals until people can go back to their homes,” she explained to Keniston as she loaded the husky in her truck. “I just want Devushka to be safe and I want you to be able to go in and be cool.”

John Peregoy, chair of the local Red Cross disaster team, said the Red Cross had received word around 11 p.m. Saturday night to be prepared to open an evacuation center at Linderman School; by 1 a.m. around 40 people had arrived, and at 8 p.m. Sunday, 72 were registered for the night.

“The community has been wonderful,” he said. Chamber of Commerce members distributed pancakes – originally made for the Cherry Festival – on Sunday morning, and the Elks Club, Richwine’s Burgerville, and various church groups offered food throughout the day. By evening, they had ample supplies and asked the community to hold off on further donations. 

Healthcare employees, including the CEOs for both St. Luke Community Healthcare in Ronan and St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson, were on hand all day. The facility is equipped with isolation rooms for anyone with COVID symptoms, and Peregoy emphasized that healthcare employees were especially helpful in screening evacuees for the virus. 

Mental health professionals are also available. Peregoy, a psychologist, said the most prevalent emotion he encountered Sunday was a sense of loss. “People didn’t grab their stuff, they didn’t have go bags and didn’t have their important papers together.” (Both FEMA and Red Cross websites offer tips on how to prepare for an emergency.)

The Red Cross, in concert with local individuals and organizations, is also helping people find temporary homes for pets and livestock. For assistance, call the main rescue number at 406-676-4200, stop by Linderman or message them via Facebook.

Michael Billington, who lives at mile marker seven on Highway 35, north of the Finley Point fire station, was sleeping outside Friday night with his daughter, Luna, and wife, Kristin Hertz. When they heard the fire siren go off, “I carried Luna inside and we talked to her about how this is an emergency and a chance to make calm decisions and an opportunity for the family to ask the pertinent question of what matters.”

The answers were “safety, things that create joy and things that support us, things that were markers of her development, and things that nourish us and our livelihood.” With those answers in mind, they set about gathering up belongings. Luna and her mother left Saturday, and Billington stayed until 4 a.m. Sunday morning, working through the night with the fire visible above the house.  

“I could see a red glow over the hilltop, the tips of the flames licking over the trees,” he said. “It was surreal. The ash was falling, it was night, the sirens were blaring.” 

Billington’s business is gathering, processing and distributing native seeds for restoration and conservation programs, so he’s well aware that he inhabits an ecosystem “shaped by fire.” Since moving to the East Shore in 2019, he’s tried to mitigate the dangers. His gravity-fed sprinklers continued to water the ground around his house, even after the power went out. 

Billington also alerted neighbors and kept them informed, helped those nearby set up sprinkler perimeters, and shuttled materials and belongings to safe zones. When he finally left early Sunday morning, it was “out of respect for my wife’s opinion,” he said. From his in-laws’ home across the lake, he could see the girth of the fire. “It made me appreciate the power of the world and my tiny little place in it.”

Keniston was also philosophical about the blaze that threatened her home. “We all go through bad times and it makes us appreciate the good times even more.” 

Sunday night brought thunderstorms and very welcome rain. According to Camel, lightning strikes ignited two small fires near Dixon. “We got on them right away and put them out.” 

The tribes are also fighting the Crooks fire, located east of Arlee in the South fork Jocko Primitive area. As of Monday, it had burned an estimated 1,000 acres. While no structures were threatened, St. Mary’s Road to the North Fork of the Jocko is closed, and the main Jocko Road was closed at the junction to the 3000 Rd. Information meetings were scheduled for Monday Aug. 2 at 4 p.m. at the Tribal Fitness Center in Arlee for the Crooks fire and at 6:30 p.m. at Linderman for the Boulder fire.


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