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Aircraft assist ground crew in Finley Lake Fire suppression

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FLATHEAD RESERVATION – While the mountains have been intermittently cloaked in smoke, it hasn’t been an unusually busy local fire season. 

According to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fire management specialist C.T. Camel, most of the smoke visible in the area is from fires burning thousands of miles away in California, which is experiencing an unusually hot year and more lightning than usual. 

Earlier in August, local wild-land fire crews were busy managing a number of fires in the area, including the Magpie Rock Fire, the Horseshoe fire, the Bird Island Fire, and two smaller fires that are suspected to have been started by arson. 

“It was hectic for about two or three weeks,” Camel said. That time period was hot and dry and tested the capacity of local fire crews. 

In general, Camel said there have been fewer fires than average this summer. Most of the fires have been managed in early stages, so they haven’t gotten out of control. Camel said the COVID-19 pandemic has added a few steps to the process for managing fires, but crews have generally been working as normal. He explained that firefighters wear masks when driving in cars together, use hand sanitizer and try to maintain a social distance. 

“We just have to try to keep doing those things while suppressing the fire,” Camel said. “Nothing’s really changed. We just have to fight it with what we’ve got.”

In light of recent fires officials suspect were started by arson, people should make sure to report any suspicious fire activity, Camel said. He also recommends that during this hot, dry time of year people make sure to put campfires out until they are cool to the touch and avoid driving vehicles in tall, dry grass. 

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell reported that a fire investigation led to the arrest of Dennis D. Larson, of Hot Springs on charges of felony negligent arson. The incident occurred in Hot Springs. 

The Hot Springs Volunteer Fire Department requested assistance from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. “Deputies responded and provided aid to the fire department by clearing out onlookers on nearby roads who were creating challenges to fire access,” Bell said.

After the investigation, Larson was taken to the Lake County jail. 

On Sunday, Aug. 30, a 25-acre fire broke out in the wilderness eight miles southeast of Arlee, east of McClure Road and north of Finley Lake. The fire was called the Finley Lake Fire.

“It was believed to be caused by an unattended campfire and is under investigation,” Camel said. 

No structures were threatened and no evacuations were made. Fire crews worked the ground and in the air for several hours on Sunday afternoon to put out the flames. At one time, two airplanes worked in tandem to dump fire suppressant, and three helicopters dipped into the lake to dump dozens of buckets of water onto the fire.    

Camel said the crew included 20 CSKT Division of Fire personnel, 10 smoke jumpers and helicopters.   

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