WHITEHALL — Firefighters made ground in containing the 19 Mile Fire in the Toll Mountain area Friday, but confirmed that 14 homes and numerous other buildings have been destroyed by the blaze.
The fire’s size reached an estimated 4,141 acres, but fire officials with the interagency team battling the blaze said they had built enough line to have it 25 percent contained.
“We were able to keep the fire from growing,” Stan Benes, incident commander with the interagency team working the fire, said during a public meeting that drew more than 120 people in Whitehall on Friday evening. “The fire did not grow much from the 4,000 acres.”
The 19 Mile Fire broke out Tuesday afternoon and spread quickly through the Toll Mountain and Lower Rader Creek road area roughly 10 miles southeast of Butte. Numerous homes are dotted on a series of roads in the hills, which are heavily timbered and interspersed with sagebrush and grassland meadows.
Benes defended firefighters against criticism that they didn’t do enough to catch the fire early. He said the volunteer department did well and as his team was on route, they were ordering as many engines and aircraft as possible to attack the fire, but it takes time for them to arrive. And he said with fires raging throughout the West and Montana, fire teams are all requesting equipment and personnel.
“We don’t have all the resources we that we asked for, but we do have more on the way,” he said. “Engines, crews, helicopters, air tankers — they’re all in short supply.”
By Friday, 356 firefighters were working the fire, said Mariah Leuschen, team information officer. The team included 25 engines and several aircraft. The effort has cost $1 million thus far.
Firefighters were working to protect the homes, but several were lost as the fire spread quickly when it was pushed by strong winds Wednesday. By Thursday officials had only confirmed a total of nine structures — including two homes — had been lost.
Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle drove around the area and checked all the addresses to get a better count Friday as some areas became safer to go into. He said the total included 14 residences, six sheds or shops, one camp trailer, one semi trailer and numerous cars, trucks and ATVs.
Some residents have been allowed back in under escort and officials were beginning to allow people who signed waivers to go in for longer periods of time. Doolittle said in some areas where the fire has calmed down deputies are patrolling to protect against looting.
“We’re doing everything we can to protect your houses while you’re not there,” he said.
He also urged residents to check their propane tanks when they go back to ensure the pipes haven’t been damaged.
Jess Secrest, operations section chief, told the crowd that at this stage firefighters are working to put the fire out while continuing to protect homes within the fire, which remained threatened. He said they’ve made progress on the east and south boundaries of the fire and have a hotshot crew working the northwest end. The western side still has a lot of fuel and Secrest said is still in danger.
Firefighters were working to snuff out hot spots within the fire’s boundary that are near homes, he said.
Secrest gave a presentation with photos to warn people who may go into the fire’s perimeter that it is a dangerous place. He said it contains numerous burned trees that are rife to fall and showed a picture of an 18-inch diameter fir tree that did so while firefighters were in there.
Benes said the threat of the fire reaching Interstate 90 is still real. He said the progress made Friday was good but there’s still a lot of work for firefighters to do.
“Things were looking good when we left,” he said. “But we were also getting 30 mph winds.”
But several people at the meeting blasted firefighters for not doing more to protect homes in the area.
Harlene Hunt, 74, said she went in and found her home, cabin and shed were gone, yet there were tracks from a firefighting truck that went through her driveway. She told the Standard she has no insurance because she couldn’t get it and now owns only the few things she grabbed Tuesday night.
She questioned how firefighters choose which houses get saved.
But Secrest said firefighters don’t pick and chose, but rather go for the structures with defensible space cleared around them that they have a chance to save.
Dan Burget, who lives on Lower Rader Creek, lambasted the fire team. He said he saw the fire early on and asked firefighters to get to it early, but they didn’t respond and the fire grew out of control.
“Something is wrong with the management of this entire affair,” he said.
But Laura Spencer, who lives on Prospectors Loop on west side of the fire, defended the steps taken by volunteer firefighters early on. The blaze broke out closer to Toll Mountain and she said when that initial fire had died somewhat, firefighters poured to Lower Rader Creek when it blew up there.
And she said everyone has long known the area is prone to wildfire with dry grasses and lots of timber.
“We knew that that this could happen to us,” she said. “We chose to live there, but it doesn’t make it any less devastating.”