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The Missoulian from Missoula, Montana • Page 5
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The Missoulian from Missoula, Montana • Page 5

The Missouliani
Missoula, Montana
Issue Date:
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Missoulian, Sunday, August 1 7, 2003 A5 FIRES OF 2003 MltlirfllllllllllMlllMWmniimillilKTllaniimM lllllll M111I1IIIIIHIIIIII IIIU ll llllHHimUlllllimJUJUmUIJ 111 I MIIMMH The Black Mountain fire blew across O'Brien Creek on Saturday afternoon, and pushed by high winds, charged over the ridge onto the lower Blue Mountain area before slowing its push a Jeep. A man came down the canyon on his tractor; another appeared driving a late-model Corvette. Within minutes, the firefighters and engines came back down Cedar Ridge Road. "The fire was spotting all around us," a firefighter reported. "It was everywhere." Joan Binder barely knew what to do next.

"I feel fortunate to have lived here 15 years," she said. "I'm glad we had that much time, but I sure wish we didn't have to go." "It's time," said Undersheriff Mike Dominick. "The evacuation is mandatory, and I need to know if you are going." "We're going," said Charlie Binder. "We will go." Back and forth over the next few hours, firefighters traded punches with the fire, moving back up the canyon, then down, then up Cedar Ridge Road, then down. When flames appeared within a few hundred feet, they sprayed foam on the brush.

When there seemed no other way to save a house, they lit a fire ring around the house, hoping the black would keep the flames away. Everywhere they turned, MICHAEL GALLACHER Missoulian Saturday evening. there was fire. Always, it was too big, too intense. "How many hours until dark?" asked Esparza.

At the corner of Big Flat and O'Brien Creek roads, firefighters watched the fire build a cloud of smoke and fire, having left Black Mountain and roared across Blue Mountain. Everywhere, residents west and south of Missoula stood in their yards or on the side of roads to watch, all now worried that they too might be in danger. Late Saturday, fire officials were trying to confirm reports of one structure lost off Cedar Ridge Road. And night had indeed fallen on the fire, which was backing down the ridge toward O'Brien Creek Road. The wind was quieter, the fire was slower.

But flames were still on the move, and in more places than anyone could count. "Fighting fire is never a fair fight," Dietrich, the incident commander, told residents earlier in the day. "You've got to kick it when it's down, because you know that's what it will do to you." Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or sdevlin missoulian. com. 5 Hi 3 MICHAEL GALLACHER Missoulian a spectacular show as tinder-dry giving access to the roof.

Their son, Chris, arrived to start the water sprinklers. The fire was boiling the air above them, turning the sun red and the sky black. Charcoal pelted their yard. The helicopters returned, trying to put out hot spots as the fire threw itself down the canyon. Then the wind picked back up, turning circles in the trees.

The exodus of people and possessions from Cedar Ridge became more frantic. Elk antlers dangled out the back of Li: I v-- "Everybody needs to be off the line." "Drop back." Fire ran through the tops of trees across the drainage, racing up the ridge toward the lookout staffed by rural firefighters since the Black Mountain fire came to life a week ago. Fire is like water, said Esparza. When pushed by the wind, it follows the bends and bumps in the terrain, picking up energy as it goes. "That's what the Black Mountain fire is doing," he said.

"It is a fire on the move." By 3:30, the last crew of firefighters were safely out of Haggerty Gulch. Leaning out the windows of their bus, Apache firefighters from southeastern Arizona said they had been chased by flames 300 feet high. It all happened so fast. There was nothing anyone could do. Already, the fire was onto Cedar Ridge, where 21 homes sat in its path.

Crew buses and engines raced up the road as residents fled, wide-eyed and disbelieving. Moments before, they had been miles from danger. Now the fire was throwing a blizzard of embers at Flames and smoke creep down the Flight Continued Martin Esparza interrupted the presentation to explain: There is a voluntary evacuation of the uppermost four houses in O'Brien Creek. It's just a warning at this point, he said. And only the most remote homes are affected.

The Binders headed up the canyon. The wind was just starting to blow. Farthest up O'Brien Creek -at the house marked No. 50 -no one was home when rural firefighters and sheriffs deputies came by with the evacuation warning. They left an orange notice tucked under the windshield wiper on the Suburban parked in the driveway.

At house No. 49, the Wilsons were taking a last look around the house. At No. 48, the Andersons were doing the same. Kathy Anderson took a few photos, just in case, for insurance purposes.

Her husband went into town to take a first load of belongings, promising to hurry back for Kathy and their four dogs. "We've been here 15 years," Rich Anderson said. "We've always known there was a risk, living in the woods. We understood that." "And now we believe it," said Kathy. "But it's still hard to say goodbye." A sheriffs deputy pulled into the yard.

"The fire is worse than it looks," he said. "It's coming right down the canyon." It was 2:00 and the fire was starting to run. On the ridgeline above Haggerty Gulch, fire behavior analyst Jim Brenner was watching as the Black Mountain fire blew up. "Relative humidity is down to 16," he said. Wind blasted the ridge, pushing Brenner back from his post.

First came a 26-mph shove, then 40 mph, then 55. The forest literally leaned to the cast-southeast. As crew bosses radioed firefighters to abandon their positions in the gully below, flames leaped across O'Brien Creek. The heavy helicopters that had dropped water on hot spots all morning headed there as well, only to be knocked away by the wind and smoke. Two school buses loaded with firefighters started up the old logging road, winding around and around the gulch as the fire ran above them.

Then came the I lotshot crews, then a strike team of engines. "Move your crews to the safety zones," came the order. The leading edge of the fire put on timber exploded in flame. their houses and trees were torching on the ridgeline above. "Is my house going to burn?" a woman asked the deputy at the intersection of O'Brien Creek and Cedar Ridge roads.

"We're all doing our best," he said. "I know," she said, not even sure why she had asked such a thing. "Thank you." The Binders, who live at the intersection, stacked a few things into the back of pickup trucks and leaned a ladder against the side of the house, hill toward the last house at the end of TOM BAUERMlMOullan O'Brien Creek on Saturday, as firefighters prepared to spray fire retardant foam on the foliage and leave the area..

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