Saturday, September 19, 2020

Managers say Magpie blaze 62% contained

by Chuck Bandel
| August 4, 2020 1:00 AM

It was mostly good news for the approximately 20 local residents who attended the Magpie Rock Fire manager’s meeting at the Dixon School gymnasium Monday morning.

“I feel like we’ve got our arms around this fire,” Incident Commander Bob MCrea said. “It ain’t out yet but we’re feeling good about it.”

McCrea’s optimistic assessment was backed up by the announcement that a fire line had been established around the blaze, which has raced across grasslands and up steep forested terrain about 4 miles west of Dixon, a small town along Montana 200.

Fire officials said their latest estimate of the fire is that it was 62% contained as of Monday morning.

The fire, which was started by a lightning strike a week ago, has burned more than 3,500 acres along the mountainous stretch, mostly between East Magpie Creek and West Magpie Creek roads.

The good news comes two days after high winds whipped the fire from an initial area covering 300 acres into its present size. Firefighters have been battling the winds and steep, treacherous terrain which has only been accessible by air assets in many spots.

A dry cold front expected to move through the area, followed by at least two days of low winds and moderating temperatures added to the upbeat assessment. But winds ranging from 10 to 20 mph in the valleys and 15 to 25 mph along the ridgetops were expected to be a challenge Monday.

There are currently 330 personnel fighting the fire, including the recent arrival of hot-shot crews from an Arizona reservation. The Magpie Rock fire has been burning entirely within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation.

Joining in the fight are firefighters from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal and state contingents, as well as area contractors.

Members of the community were told many of the crews are in mop-up stage along the fire’s borders, while helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft continue to pour water and fire retardant on hot spots and flare-ups.

“The team we have assembled has been battling this fire in very challenging terrain and very hot and dry conditions,” said Fire Management Officer Ron Swancey. “This is an excellent team we have in place.”

Swancey said smoke from the fire has at times limited visibility and hampered use of aerial assets, but crews have made the best of the situation.

The blaze was a mere 5 acres in size when it was first discovered last week, McCrea said. But high winds and bad fire “behavior” quickly changed the size and shape of the fire.

There are currently no structures in the direct path of the fire, which is burning south up the mountainsides and east, creating hazy skies in the Dixon and Ravalli areas for the past several days. Over the weekend, there was initial concern that structures to the west and south of the fire could possibly be threatened, but that concern has diminished.

Tony Harwood, a fire behavior specialist, told the audience that despite heavy snowfall and higher than normal rainfall in the months of June and July, areas such as Dixon and Perma have become high-risk fire zones.

“These lands here have become key areas of concern for fire predictability,” Harwood said. “Because of several factors, including the winds common to this area, a lot of that precipitation missed spots like Dixon and Perma.”

Fire officials say there have been a “few minor” injuries among firefighters battling the blaze, but given the circumstances they have been fortunate.

Other than a few questions about the fire’s boundaries, residents seemed satisfied with the information they were given.

At the end of the session, one resident said she was “very grateful” for the efforts put forth by a group of firefighters and officials who outnumbered locals in attendance. That remark was followed by a hearty round of applause.