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Clancy VFD Assists on "19 Mile Fire" in Whitehall

The Clancy Volunteer Fire Department responded to a Mutual Aid request from county neighbor Whitehall to assist in a brush fire near structures. The Mutual Aid request went out statewide on Wednesday afternoon, providing the opportunity for Clancy VFD to operate with other departments, including Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation (DNRC) and the US Forest Service (USFS). The fire, which was started by a lightning strike, appeared very containable. During the afternoon, winds picked up, and the fire quickly spread across the grass and sage brush and grew to over 1,000 acres. Despite efforts by fire fighters, the fire spread rapidly at night and threatened residential structures. A mandatory evacuation order was issued to residents in 200 threatened homes. (Montana law restricts law enforcement or any other agency from enforcing evacuation orders… meaning, the orders are “urgent requests”. There is no way to force a person to leave their property, even in the event of an imminent disaster.) Most residents heeded the evacuation notice, but several homes remained occupied, even as the flames consumed their yards and houses. One victim reportedly received 2nd and 3rd degree burns on their hands and arms, and still refused to leave the house. Fire fighters worked around the clock – Clancy ran a total of three, twelve-hour shifts – but during the night Wednesday, the fire had grown to 3,000 acres, and had already burned thirteen structures, including nine homes. Thursday morning, the third Clancy VFD shift worked with the Boulevard VFD from Butte, supporting efforts by the Helena HotShots in setting back fires and protecting structures.

 

19 Mile 1

 

Even with the increased resources provided by the various departments, seven days later the fire had consumed twenty structures, and thirteen homes, and had burned over 4,000 acres of timber and grassland. DNRC and USFS provided air support, with three water-dropping helicopters deployed, and a slurry bomber team. These agencies also had to provide and prioritize resources, as there were several active fires burning, including one in the Lincoln area, and an 18,000 acre fire less than 100 miles away near Bozeman. Many state volunteer departments answered the call for help from Whitehall, but their resources were also strained, as departments had to keep enough equipment and personnel available to tackle incidents in their own districts.

The fire was an interesting study in fire behavior and lack of predictability. Given the weather conditions – warm, low relative humidity levels, changing wind conditions – the topology, abundance of fuel supplies, difficult to access residential structures, all led to a very dangerous and difficult fire to tackle. Not to mention, there were several instances of “dirty burns”, where the grass and sage brush burned very quickly and very hot, but the timber remained standing. But, hours later, the residual heat and embers of the original fire was enough to ignite the dry needles and branches in the junipers and firs and was able to climb to the tops of the trees, jumping from treetop to treetop (“crowning”).

19 Mile 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helicopter Pond Dip

 

 

 

Pond Dip - Enlarged

This incident should be a reminder to every one of the dangers of fire season. The Clancy Volunteer Fire Department urges everyone to use extreme caution and common sense when fire and heat are involved.

The pictures in this article were provided by Chick Bruce and Mike Goehring of the Clancy VFD. More pictures of this incident can be found on our Photos section.