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Close call

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Firefighters stomped on the 900-acre Camp 32 fire southwest of Eureka on Monday, completing an overnight effort to encircle the blaze with fire line. Several homes were narrowly saved after the fire blew up Sunday afternoon.

While high temperatures and low humidities mixed with light winds, firefighting efforts seemed to be holding up late Monday afternoon, to the relief of homeowners along Pinkham Creek and Black Lake roads.

“I can’t believe we came back up here this morning and still saw a building,” said James Little, recalling how he and his brother left the night before with the fire at their heels.

“We looked back and saw this big puff of black smoke go up behind us, and we thought it was Mom’s house.”

The fire started no more than a half-mile away, near an old campsite called Camp 32, and became visible to Fred Little at about 1 p.m. Sunday.

Within an hour, the fire was pushing toward several buildings on their property, and by 6 p.m. it had erupted into a crown fire that pressed against their property line.

Air tankers repeatedly dropped loads of retardant on the buildings, vehicles and the surrounding forest.

“It must work,” said Fred Little, “because everything’s still here.”

But amazingly, the fire stopped right at the property line, no more than 30 yards from the buildings. Beyond the fence, the timber is blackened, and the only item that was damaged was an old car that was mostly incinerated by the blaze. Nothing remained but a scorched body and frame, an engine block and melted glass.

Next door, at the north end of Pinkham Creek Road, Roxy Finch evacuated almost immediately after seeing smoke over the trees on the horizon, and ended up coming back two times to collect belongings.

“Within an hour of when we first saw it, we had to leave,” she said. “We just took pictures.”

Finch was inside her house when it was “painted” with the distinctive red retardant later in the afternoon.

“It was loud. It was just a big ‘whoosh,'” she said. “It was scary.”

The last time she left, at about 6 p.m. Sunday, trees were on fire no more than 50 yards away. Finch and her boyfriend returned Monday afternoon, and like the Little brothers, they said they were surprised to see the house still standing, along with the retardant-spattered camper trailer that they came to pick up.

Fewer than a dozen homes were ordered to evacuate in the same area Sunday afternoon, said Lincoln County Deputy Roby Bowe. By Monday afternoon, most of the homes appeared to be deserted.

Initial attack hand crews off the Kootenai National Forest and contract bulldozer drivers worked through Sunday night to cut line around the entire fire perimeter, which proved highly effective.

“There was no growth during the day,” said Terry Knupp, who arrived with a Type I incident command team to manage the fire Monday afternoon. “It appears that the lines are holding that have been put in.”

Knupp said it was “fantastic to have a line in overnight.”

Throughout the afternoon, two helicopters relentlessly dropped bucket loads over the leading edge of the fire, which had crept toward Black Butte Lookout and a ridge that is only about three air miles southwest of Eureka.

Knupp said plans were in place to continue with a second night shift, first with hand crews, followed by engine crews. She said the incident command team was trying to locate additional bulldozer drivers, because the ones who worked around the clock Sunday and Monday had exceeded their 16-hour shift limits and would be required to rest for eight hours.

Knupp said the Type I team, led by Wally Bennett of Kalispell, was called in because of the fire’s dangerous potential. Eureka and many houses outside the town lie directly downwind from the fire.

“Just its potential prompted a Type I team to come in and be ready,” she said. “If we had gotten a stronger wind today, and we lost a spot, it could be a different fire.”

But, fire managers were expecting an odd weather shift — with winds coming out of the northeast — by midnight. Prevailing winds from the southwest were expected to resume sometime Tuesday afternoon.

The cause of the Camp 32 fire is under investigation.

ON THE FLATHEAD NATIONAL FOREST, three fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex continued to be the center of attention.

The 2,652-acre Kelly Point Fire is about 20 miles south of Spotted Bear and a mile north of Black Bear Cabin, while the 146-acre Limestone Peak Fire is about 20 miles east of Spotted Bear.

The Holbrook Fire, discovered Saturday night, is about nine miles south of the Black Bear Cabin along the South Fork Flathead River. Flathead Forest firefighters have been sent to suppress the fire.

A 10-person interagency fire team is assisting forest staffers in managing the Kelly Point and Limestone Peak fires, mostly by using natural barriers such as cliffs and rocky ridges, and areas that previously have burned.

Firefighters have been stationed at the Black Bear Cabin for structure protection.

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