Living with Fire on the North Fork

Following is an article that was sent by our good North Fork neighbor, Karina Pettey…

Whale Butte fire | photo by Amy Secrest
Whale Butte fire | photo by Amy Secrest

Saturday, August 11, 2018: Lightning punctuated local radio chatter as my neighbors tried to pinpoint strikes from the predicted dry storm. Using lightning app technology and line of sight, they worked to identify potential areas to watch for smoke. For now, darkness shrouded the forest as duff incubated the embers.

Sunday morning, the smell of fresh smoke greeted us but we shrugged it off. Our neighbor smelled it as well and called it in. Fire dispatch argued, he insisted. Three hours later, there was official confirmation of a fire on Whale Butte and a Type III team rolled in to check it out. A little fire located up the North Fork, one of several started by the same storm, Whale Butte was low priority and we knew it.

Preparing for fire begins well before lightning strikes. The North Fork Landowners Association (NFLA) collaborates with government agencies on multiple fronts including fire mitigation and fire safety. Community organizations and agencies with responsibilities on the North Fork hold joint public meetings twice a year. It’s an opportunity to address issues, network, and build relationships. North Forkers don’t mince words and our government partners know it! When the Type 1 Team was assigned, the Forest Service made it clear that community relationships were a Value at Risk. An angry North Fork is the stuff of local legend. After all, we might quit bringing dessert to potlucks!

Fire Meeting at the Hall | photo by Suzanne Daniel
Fire Meeting at the Hall | photo by Suzanne Daniel

Once lightning struck, our neighborhood acted. The Moose Creek Road picnic that Sunday turned into a fire meeting when local fire leadership showed up. Location, access, fuel loadings, properties at risk, occupancy, and communication methods were discussed. We alerted area residents to the threat, including contacting summer residents that had already returned home to other parts of the country. Others interfaced with the Type III team monitoring the fire. By the time the Type I team took over Thursday night, local communication networks were functioning and were being used to efficiently share information. Our government partners insisted on meetings at Sondreson Hall as they knew the North Fork community would show up.

At home, we planned our fire strategy. Of the nine properties closest to the fire, we own one and manage two more. We planned a multi-step approach, first prepare the defendable property closest to the fire, next remove our personal effects and then work to protect the remaining two properties as they were farther away. We figured if the fire blew down the valley, we’d be finished with our preparation and be available to help our neighbors.

Tuesday, August 14: Our crew started fire preparation work at the first property after receiving owner permission to clear a safety zone around structures. We knew that aggressive aerial operations and two Fire Use Modules were all the defense available for Whale Butte fire. The crew worked steadily all week and then early on Friday, August 17th, the fire appeared to make a run. That day we experienced community. Neighbors showed up to help those close to the fire get personal effects out. They offered storage, places to stay, provided emergency medical services, brought supplies from town, and assisted with structure protection. As Larry Wilson, NFLA President, recently said, “There’s nothing like a fire to bring a community together.”

Somewhere in the haze of Friday, our road turned into a fire command post, pre-evacuation notices were delivered, Flathead County conducted structure protection analysis and began distribution of fire protection systems, and heavy equipment started rolling in. No one had expected this level of support for a low priority fire in an extreme fire season; it gave us hope.

Helicopter going to Whale Butte | photo by Debo Powers
Helicopter going to Whale Butte | photo by Debo Powers

For the next two weeks while crews worked the fire, we continued implementing our fire strategy plan and prepping properties. Often when we pulled out of the driveway, we ran into fire personnel from all over the country. Their professionalism and willingness to share from their perspective what was happening both educated and entertained us. We passed on the information to our neighbors and the North Fork community.

While Whale Butte did not exhibit Howe Ridge wildfire behavior, nor capture the headlines, it certainly had potential and fuel to do so. North Fork fire history certainly demonstrates that. Its slow-moving nature (partly a result of aggressive air operations early on) gave everyone a chance to respond. By September 6, nearly a month after lightning struck, crews were removing structure protection systems and fire operations were shifting to monitoring and patrol, a big step back to normal. It’s good news and we expect an informal neighborhood fire watch will operate until snow flies.

From Inciweb: Drone on Whale Butte Fire 8-26-18

Whale Butte reinforced for us lessons our neighbors learned from the Red Bench, Moose, Robert and Wedge Canyon fires. First, have a list, and a plan, you will likely use them! We sure did. We keep important documents, family photos and the kids’ childhood treasures in easy to haul water resistant totes. It was stack and go. Packing the supply trailer and grandma’s piano took a bit more work! Prepping structures and fire mitigation work took the largest portion of our time.

Next, work on fuel modification and structure protection regularly. Fuel modification can change fire behavior as it approaches your home. Start work close to structures and values at risk and move out from them in all directions. Pay special attention to common angles of approach for a fire, in our case, usually the southwest. Also inspect your property ingress/egress. Can your structures be safely accessed? Check your fire equipment regularly. Many of our neighbors had modified their fuels over the past 15 years and improved structure fire safety. Their focus was setting up personal fire protection systems and fire-retardant materials. As a rule, most homes were more defensible than properties in the 1988 and 2003 fires. Our personal goal is to have our property and others we care for designed so they can be fire ready in four hours.

Finally, communication, community and relationships provided a huge benefit in the face of natural disaster, not only within our neighborhood but particularly with our government partners and protecting agencies. Veteran fire crew members who worked previous North Fork fires told us that this time, the communication flow, cooperation and relationships between the community and various agencies were significantly improved. We are fortunate to live in an area where lessons have been taken to heart and communication, community and relationships are valued and respected. This is the most important lesson we learned from the Whale Butte Fire.

Our heartfelt thanks to the firefighters, Incident Management Teams, Flathead National Forest, Flathead County Emergency Services and Road Department and the NFLA for their service and attention to the Whale Butte Fire and the North Fork Community.