By Roger Dey

Fire season rears its head

Fire near Lincoln explodes Monday, forces evacuations; third significant fire in past week


August 7, 2019

Roger Dey

A plume of smoke from the Horsefly Fire rises over the hills east of Lincoln Monday afternoon as the fire gathered strength and began to grow.

The smoke plume that rose over the mountains east of Lincoln Monday seemed like a rerun as the Horsefly Fire erupted to life only about a mile west of the Black Diamond Fire that reared up near Flesher Pass Friday, Aug. 2.

The Horsefly Fire saw bucket drops almost immediately after it was reported, while it was still quite small, Fire Information Officer Tammy Shroyer told the BVD. Nevertheless, it gathered strength and grew to 100 acres by 2:30 p.m. As the afternoon wore on, fire crews and law enforcement could be seen streaming toward the Flesher Pass area as the fire exploded in size. By Monday evening, the fire was estimated to be 1500 acres and had burned through the Black Diamond Fire area. By Tuesday morning the fire's size had been mapped at 500 acres.

The threat posed by the fire as it expanded to the east prompted Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton to issue an evacuation order for residents in the Flesher Acres area southeast of Flesher Pass.

On Tuesday morning the fire had multiple ground crews assigned to it, as well as two large air tankers, two single engine air tankers and one heavy helicopter for water and retardant drops.

The cause of the fire was still unclear Tuesday morning. In his initial report to the BVD, Lincoln District Ranger said it could have been the result of spotting from the Black Diamond Fire, or possibly from a lighting strike that smoldered until it gained enough energy to take off. Regardless, the fire has the potential for significant growth as it burns in timber and heavy dead and down beetle kill.

Apublic meeting on it was scheduled for Tues day evening, Aug 6 at the Canyon Creek Fire Department. The American Red Cross has a shelter for evacuees at Helena's First Assembly of God Church at 2210 Dodge Ave. Call 800-272-6668 to reach the Montana Red Cross for services. Information on the Horsefly Fire is available at 406-458-4922 or by emailing [email protected]

Mike Almas' Northern Rockies Incident Management Team added the Horsefly Fire to the list of fires they are managing in the Lincoln area. Almas' Type 2 team had been assigned to the North Hills Fire near Helena, but as that wound down, they took control of the Nevada Creek Fires South of Lincoln Aug. 3. In an effort to better coordinate the air resource they also took on Black Diamond Saturday, Aug. 4.

Before the Horsefly Fire appeared, the Lincoln Ranger District hosted a community meeting at Hooper park in Lincoln Saturday evening, Aug. 3 to discuss the fire situation. At that time things seemed pretty well in hand.

Lincoln District Ranger Michael Stansberry said lighting has been the culprit in the recent fires around Lincoln. Dry lightning that moved through the area Monday, July 29 ignited the Dalton Fire at the upper end of Washington Creek, about four miles east of Granite Butte

Stansberry said they had the Flathead and Helena Hotshot crews on the Dalton Fire right away, but it was too deep into a roadless area to get heavy equipment to it. Instead, air resources helped the two crews keep the fire to just three acres.

A second lighting storm moved through Wednesday night, producing lighting strikes around Lincoln at a rate of about four per minute, according to That led to a series of new starts around the area, including eight on National Forest lands.

"The good news is we had enough resources here on the ground already. A lot of those fires you don't know about because we were able to get on them very quickly."

A fire in the Nevada Creek area about six miles southeast of Granite Butte wasn't one of them. Flathead Hot Shots Superintendent Shawn Borgen has been working as an operations trainee for Almas' team, but he was on the ground at the Dalton Fire when the lightning storm moved through. He said they felt the strike about two miles from them that ignited the Nevada Creek Fire , but couldn't get on it right away. Retardant and water drops proved effective in keeping the fire out of the treetops and on the ground while the crews made their way to it. The fire proved to be in an area where it was impossible to use heavy equipment.

"It's important to note its laid out on super steep slope. You all know, your forest has a lot of dead standing, so it's really difficult to get down on the sides of this thing without getting hurt," Borgen said.

Firefighters in the area also face the rising danger of falling snags, as the root systems of the thousands standing dead beetle killed trees rot away. Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor said at Saturday's meeting he made a calculated risk to expose crews to some risk from standing dead snags.

"They're going to go very slow, very carefully to get a line around it," he said. "What we're doing is exposing a smaller amount of people now, to try to ensure...that thing doesn't; get up and romping and we have to have a lot more people exposed."

As of Tuesday morning, the Nevada Creek Fire stood at 56 acres with 10 percent containment and 156 people assigned to it. According to the update from Almas' team, the fire hasn't seen significant perimeter growth, but has seen activity within the retardent line. Firefighters are continuing to build fire line where it's safe to do so.

The Black Diamond Fire made a dramatic appearance Friday and proved to be in a more favorable location for suppression. Stansberry said they got Hot Shot crews and dozers on it almost immediately, with air tankers, a heavy helicopter and the VLAT hitting it hard with retardant and bucket drops to help limit it's spread. Before it was consumed by the growth of the Horsefly Fire, crews had gotten a line around it by Saturday afternoon, and mop up efforts got underway that evening.

Stansberry said at the community meeting that the fires around Lincoln have benefitted from a lack of significant fire activity in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region, which has made a lot of the resources, particularly air resources, available when they might not be otherwise. That is expected to change as fire season wears on. On Monday, the National Multi-agency Coordinating Group increased the National Preparedness level due to the current and anticipated wildfire activity in the Northwest and Great Basin.

Locally, the National Weather Service forecast for the Lincoln Ranger District is calling for sunny weather with highs in the 80s and 10-15 mph west winds through Wednesday, followed by cooler weather with highs in the lower 70s or even 60s into the weekend. A chance of higher winds and thunderstorms is forecast through Monday, with showers likely over the weekend.

Roger Dey

A large air tanker drops retardant on the flank of the Black Diamond Fire Friday afternoon. The Horsefly fire burned over the Black Diamond Fire Monday night. Air tankers have been a common sight over fires in the area in the last week.


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