Investigators Show Montana Fire Shelters Site, Saved Firefighters

TARKIO (LEE)--The scorched ponderosa branches all point up-canyon in unison, frozen in time like pipe cleaners along a model landscape.

A few rocks are marked with orange tape in the middle of a road.

They indicate where three firefighters took refuge beneath their "new generation" emergency fire shelters.

A dozer blade shielded them from the heat as a fast-moving flame front ripped around them, burning their gear but leaving them unscathed.

But like the pine trees, the three dozer drivers were nearly overwhelmed by a firestorm that coursed across 5,000 acres in a matter of hours last Wednesday a few miles off Interstate 90 west of Missoula.

An investigation team hopes to avoid similar incidents in the future.

An inquiry into the near-fatal disaster is standard procedure, and always follows the rare deployment of a device often regarded as a firefighter's last line of defense.

Members of the investigation team say their aim is to glean enough facts and details to avoid similar incidents in the future.

"We consider any deployment of a fire shelter a serious matter," Mike Oliver, a member of the investigation team, said Monday. "We will always investigate these matters. Firefighter safety is paramount."

Last Wednesday evening, two dozer bosses and one contract dozer operator were en route to a primary safety zone when shifting weather conditions sided with the fire.

Because of the slow rate of travel, the dozer lumbered behind 65 other firefighters, who finally advised the men via radio that their escape route could be compromised.

The men traveled to within one mile of the main safety zone, then determined the road might not be safe. They retreated back down the canyon to an alternate safety zone a road junction previously identified, located about two miles from the primary safety zone.

There they worked for an hour before the flames reached them, using the dozer to clear about 150 feet of fuel inside the safety zone.

As the blaze approached, a shower of embers and radiant heat forced them into their one-man shelters, where they remained for several minutes as the flame front dashed through the canyon.

The fire burned all around the roadbed, and the men's decision to clear the junction of organic fuel may have saved their lives.

"We give our firefighters broad latitude to make decisions regarding their safety," Oliver said.

High temperatures, low humidity, 50 mph winds and steep terrain combined to generate the sudden firestorm.

Bruce Fox, the leader of the investigation team, said the intent of the probe is never to point fingers.

"It's not at all about repercussions," he said. "It's just about fact finding and learning."

At least two of the men will return to work after the investigation.

None of the men wish to have their names released, but officials said they are experienced firefighters.

The Tarkio fire was one of two the other at West Mountain that got the best of initial attack crews the night of Aug. 4, when at least 22 wildfires ignited along Interstate 90 west of Missoula late in the afternoon.

After last week's blowup on the Tarkio fire, crews burned out the forest land separating the two wildfires, creating one large burned area they could more easily contain inside fire lines.