Fire near Bison Range burns 500 acres

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A fire burns Thursday night on Ravalli Hill east of the National Bison Range. (Roxana Colman-Herak photo)

A children’s ranch was evacuated Thursday night as a fire on Ravalli Hill east of the National Bison Range grew to 500 acres.

The fire was called in at about 4 p.m. Thursday about 50 yards below a rest-area turnout on U.S. 93.

“I think it started by a trailer with a flat tire throwing sparks,” said Devlin Lafrombois, a fire information officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire.

Lafrombois said rural fire departments from Charlo, St. Ignatius and Ronan initially responded. The Division of Fire sent a crew of 20 firefighters to Ravalli Hill on Friday.

“It started out, it grew to 18 acres and they thought they had a handle on it and the wind picked up,” Lafrombois said.

By Friday afternoon, about 50 personnel were working on the fire, which is burning in an area that is 80 percent grass and 20 percent timber. It is located just east of the Bison Range and south of St. Ignatius.

The Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch was evacuated during the night.

Bob Larsson, associate director and Founder of Pinehaven, said that the women and children of the ranch evacuated to the Christian Church in St. Ignatius about an hour after the Division of Fire gave a warning that fire was approaching at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The men of the 1,020-acre ranch, which is home to about 60 residents and staff, operated the ranch’s firefighting gear that includes two bulldozers, a fire truck and tanker truck.

“You can’t wait for the government to bail you out if you are under fire,” Larsson said. “They have too many other things to worry about.”

The ranch staff bulldozed a fire break along the western side of the property. Calls were also made to ask people to pray to protect the ranch from the fire, Larsson said.

“You work and you pray and the fire stopped right when it got to the boundary,” Larsson said. “We had other people praying across the country.”

The evacuation order was lifted around 7 a.m. and things returned to normal, though Larsson could see planes dropping what appeared to be fire retardant Friday morning.

Around 50 volunteers from around the country who were away camping Thursday night returned the next morning to work on projects at the ranch including building a bowling alley.

Larsson said that the ranch has been operating for 40 years and that this is the second time it has had to be evacuated because of a wildfire. That was in July 2013 because of the Firestone Flats Fire.

Charlo resident Roxana Colman-Herak was driving through the area at around 10:30 p.m. and watched the fire spread.

“It was just a puff of smoke,” Colman-Herak said. “It didn’t look like much but it crawled down that mountain like a ribbon. By the time we got there, it was roaring.”

She said the fire crews seemed to get it under control quickly.

“They were amazing,” she said. “When I looked at it, it looked like they had it contained.”

In addition to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and rural fire departments, the Montana Highway Patrol was called in to direct traffic immediately after the fire started.

The rural departments were released from the fire late Thursday night. Bulldozers were sent in to help contain the fire.

By Friday afternoon, tribal fire prevention specialist C.T. Camel said he estimated the fire was about 30 percent contained and not likely to spread further.

“There was an AT&T tower threatened, so they do have some heavies and a couple [single-engine air tankers] dropping” suppressant, Camel said.

The two heavy tankers left the fire by late Friday afternoon while the single-engine planes continued to work.

The steep, rocky terrain along ridge where the cell phone tower is located prevented bulldozers from accessing the site. Camel said a hand crew worked to dig fire line throughout Friday, with a second crew on the way.

No significant wind was in the immediate forecast, although the hot, dry weather is expected to continue through the weekend. He added that the hottest portions were burning in timber, in the middle of the fire, easing concerns that it could spot beyond the burn area’s perimeter.

“They’re just trying to corral that little piece up there that’s getting close to the tower,” he said. “It’s on a south-facing slope so there’s not a lot of fuel, which helps on the ground. It’s just torching trees here and there.”

Lafrombois reminded holiday travelers to make sure that their chains aren’t dragging and tires are not causing sparks.

“It’s just going to continue to get drier,” Lafrombois said.

Elsewhere in Montana, a lightning-caused fire 10 miles southwest of Hamilton had grown to 1.6 square miles by Friday, the Associated Press reported. Crews were improving fire line along the southern edge of the fire while Hotshot crews began building line on the east side.

Reporter Sam Wilson contributed to this story.

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