A fast-moving flame front Wednesday night forced three dozer drivers to deploy their fire shelters after the Tarkio fire took a run that carried it miles in a matter of hours. The firefighters were not injured. Fire information officers did not release their names, although incident commander Bob Sandman said one, a bulldozer operator, was a local man. The other two, he said, were from Nevada and California and were agency dozer bosses.
They were the last in a line of 65 firefighters who were escaping to safety zones when they made the decision to deploy their fire shelters.
“Their gear burned up, but they were fine,” Sandman said. “The fire didn’t even bubble the paint on their pickup or dozer.”
The conditions – high temperatures, low humidity, 30 mph winds aligned just perfectly with the topography – created a firestorm that traveled over four miles in a matter of four hours. By the time it slowed, the Tarkio fire had burned through about 5,000 acres and shut down two major Bonneville Power Administration power lines for 26 1/2 hours.
The Tarkio fire is the largest of the wildfires ignited Aug. 4 along Interstate 90 west of Missoula. Wednesday night’s blowup was the first this year in Montana to force firefighters into their protective shelters.
“All the stars lined up to allow this fire to take off,” said Bob Summerfield, a Forest Service information officer.
The fire burned through a variety of fuels, including acreage that had been logged by Plum Creek Timber Co., an area burned in 2000 and finally into a stand of lodgepole, much of which was dead or dying.
The three firefighters were caught on the north edge of the fast-moving blaze at about 7 p.m. They retreated to a safety zone and decided to deploy their shelters.
“They took refuge after an ember shower started raining down on them,” said Summerfield.
And that’s about all the information Summerfield was ready to provide about the incident until a special investigative team has completed its initial review of the deployment.
What were the men’s names?
“Don’t know,” Summerfield said.
How far away were they from other firefighters when they deployed their shelters?
How close was the fire to them?
“I don’t know that either,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know.”
But Sandman confirmed Thursday night that the fire had burned over the firefighters.
The investigation will focus on the decision-making process, starting with the firefighters who deployed right up to the regional forester, Summerfield said.
“We want to know what was in place Š the culture and thought processes,” he said. “What can we learn from this? Both the good things and the things not good and then use that information to keep our firefighters safer in the future.”
“We don’t want to do anything that will mess up the investigation,” Summerfield said, explaining why information on the incident is being withheld from the public.
Summerfield predicted that more information about the incident will be released within a day or two.
“The firefighters did what they were trained to do,” Sandman said. “During this blowup, 800 firefighters walked off the hillsides without a scratch. It was a success story.”
Conditions have been dismal for firefighting efforts and “unbelievably great for the fire,” Sandman said.
A fire behavior specialist told Sandman that he’d have to go back to 1969 to find a year with this many days with temperatures above 90 degrees in August.