Friday, May 24, 2024

Fairgrounds offers sanctuary to fire evacuees

Hagadone News Network | August 10, 2023 12:00 AM

When mandatory evacuations for Walking Horse Lane and Early Dawn Road and adjacent areas near Big Arm were announced last Thursday afternoon by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Vicki Holmberg, Polson Fairgrounds caretaker, was immediately on the phone with people seeking shelter for their animals and places to park their campers and RVs. When she wasn’t on the phone, she was showing people where to put their animals.

By Friday morning 32 cows, 22 horses, nine chickens and numerous dogs and cats were bunking at the fairgrounds.

According to Holmberg, when she spoke to Rick Wies, who was calling about a place for the family's horses, he told her they had 18 horses and a two-horse trailer. Holmberg posted that info on Facebook and received 30 offers to help from around the state.

Rick and his wife, Cathy, who own Walking Horse Ranch on Walking Horse Road, were notified they needed to evacuate between 2 and 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. Residents of the area since 1984, they had never had to evacuate before.

“Actually, it’s a nice facility. We appreciate the fairgrounds and the help,” Rick said.

David Graham and Tracy Wall transported a dozen of the couple’s horses to the fairgrounds where they were housed in stalls next to each other. Rick said the fire crew was keeping watch over the remainder.

“We’re hoping it’s just a couple of days,” he said. “Sounds like they're getting a pretty good handle on the fire.”

Maryl and Donna Vance, who also live on Walking Horse Road, were notified they needed to evacuate about 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. They brought their horses to the fairgrounds but left their cows.

Members of the Fire Management Team told them “cattle will kind of move out of the way but horses panic,” Maryl said.

The fire was some distance from their place, with some flat land and a ridge between them and the blaze.

“Yesterday, it was billowing pretty good,” Donna said Friday morning, but as the Vances spoke, a few raindrops fell.

The couple has never had to evacuate before, although it was close with the Elmo fire last year. They also thought they might need to evacuate about 10 years ago, when there was a big fire in Irvine Flats.

The Vances brought their camper and parked next to the corral where their horses were nibbling hay.

Nancy Cameron was stuffing hay in a net for her horses at the fairgrounds. She and her husband also live on Walking Horse Lane, and on Friday she was watching information that said that area was on fire. So she called her husband, who had remained at home.

“There’s smoke down there, but I don’t see anything,” her husband said on the phone. “I’ll go check and call you back.”

He called her back. “No, I don’t even see any flames. Nobody is down there,” he reported. “No, it’s not on fire, sweetheart.”

She added that there was more of a concentration of resources “on the other side. There’s nobody at the end of our road, so we feel like we’re being left to burn.”

“This will be our third night out, and we could have been home,” Cameron added. “My horses wouldn’t have had to be upset; they would have been in their pasture. So yeah, I’m not happy with the information we’re getting.”

“Vicki has been so nice,” Cameron said of the fairgrounds’ caretaker. “She’s just a sweetheart. When I went home to take a shower yesterday morning, I brought her back some freezer jam and a bottle of wine.”

By Monday, the sheriff's office had changed the evacuation status for Niarada to a pre-evacuation warning, so those in the area could return to their homes. Flathead County also lifted the evacuation notice from Browns Meadow Pass to Highway 28.

However, since the fire could still pose a threat, residents were advised to keep livestock out of the area until it was downgraded to “ready” status, which is the current status for the town of Elmo.

Fire managers anticipate continued smoke from the fire, estimated at 18,366 acres, as strategic burning operations continue, and fixed wing aircraft and helicopters continue to deliver water and retardant. The nearby Mill Pocket Fire has burned around 2,135 acres.

Bison Range trims access to Red Sleep

After narrowly escaping the Communication Butte fire two weeks ago, another fire encroached upon the southeast section of the CSKT Bison Range last Thursday, prompting range managers to limit access to Red Sleep Drive.

A human-caused fire burning half a mile west of Ravalli on Aug. 3 was kept to 52 acres and quickly contained by CSKT Fire Control, Mission and Arlee Fire Departments, as well as a local forest helicopter and a single engine aircraft tanker (SEAT). According to CSKT, the cause of that fire is still under investigation.

Meanwhile, Bison Range managers have taken extra precautions to avoid further fire starts.

The two-hour Red Sleep Drive now closes at 1 p.m. daily until further notice. All visitors who wish to drive the full loop must have purchased their pass and be on the road before 1 p.m. Buffalo Prairie Drive will continue to be open until 8 p.m. daily unless new safety concerns emerge.

For up-to-date information, visit the CSKT Bison Range Facebook page, call 406-644-2211 or email

Status of other fires

Cooler weather and some rain showers over the weekend helped firefighters gain ground on the Big Knife Fire, burning east of Arlee, and the Middle Ridge Fire, west of Ronan.

By Tuesday, the Middle Ridge Fire had burned an estimated 12,700 acres and was 60% contained. Most of the fire is burning on the west side of the Flathead River in rugged terrain of pinyon-juniper and grass. Firefighters were continuing to quench hot spots around the perimeter.

The Big Knife Fire had burned just under 5,000 acres by Tuesday, and firefighters were mulching vegetation along the Jocko Canyon Road. Teams are assessing structure protection around houses and outbuildings in the canyon, and working with tribal resource advisors to make sure cultural and natural resources are evaluated and protected in the area.

At the same time, crews were working along the Jocko S Canal “so if fire moves toward residences in Jocko Canyon we have a good buffer,” and had established primary and secondary fire lines along Agency Creek to help keep the fire from spreading westward toward the community of Arlee.

The Holmes Creek Fire is burning high in the Mission Mountains, and has consumed around 45 acres with 70% containment. That blaze started last week in steep rocky terrain, and is being fought with smokejumpers and heli-repellers.

Community meetings and fire restrictions

A reminder: Stage 2 fire restrictions remain in place across the Flathead Indian Reservation. This means no campfires are allowed, no smoking outside of vehicles, no operating combustible engines between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m., and no operating of vehicles off designated roads and trails.

Community meetings were scheduled for the Niarada, Big Knife and Mill Pocket fires at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9 at the Elmo Community Center and 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10 at the Arlee Community Center. Meetings will also be streamed on the CSKT Division of Fire’s Facebook page,

As the CSKT Division of Fire noted after this weekend’s welcome rainfall, ”rain and the increased humidity associated with it will not put these fires out. While the moisture certainly will help, only boots on the ground building line and mopping up can ensure the fires no longer pose a threat to the communities and lands in the area.”

Matt Butler, a Fire Behavior Analyst assigned to these fires with Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 3, explained the difference in the effects of rain on different-sized fuels.

“If you build your campfire out of grass, pine needles and small sticks, it’s much easier to extinguish with just a little bit of water,” he said. “If you have your fire burning for a few days with larger logs, it takes a lot more water and a lot more time to put it out.”

For more fire information on fires burning across Montana, visit


A horse from Walking Horse Lane shelters at the Polson Fairgrounds while the Niarada Fire rages near his home. (Berl tiskus/Leader)


The Big Knife Fire near Arlee had consumed around 5,000 acres by Tuesday. (Max Dupras/Leader)


The Niarada fire last Tuesday evening shows flickers of flame. It's gotten considerably larger, and some residents have had to evacuate. (Berl Tiskus/Leader)