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Ennis, Montana

Swift action helps keep fire in hand
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

August 4, 2003

A pine tree explodes Thursday in the Sureshot fire northwest of Ennis. Perry Backus / The Montana Standard

There was just a bit of smoke wafting up through the trees when David DeSimone of the Forest Service spotted the fire Thursday afternoon, about 16 miles northwest of Ennis near Sureshot Lake.

With temperatures in the mid-90s and the wind starting to bend branches of nearby trees, he and Jonathan Klein knew there was not much time before that smoke would turn to flame in the tinder dry forest near Ennis. Both worked for the Forest Service.

Using a handheld radio, Klein called the Madison Ranger District to report the lightning-caused fire already growing on the tree-covered hillside. Time now was of the essence.

With large fires scattered across the state, fire fighting resources are at premium. Just over the ridgeline, in South Willow Creek, there were summer homes, a campground and Potosi Hot Springs Lodge.

"We knew right away that this fire had a lot of potential for the kind of high cost firefighting that comes with the urban interface," said Mark Petroni, the Madison District Ranger for the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. "It had subdivisions on two of its flanks."

By the time Klein raced down to the road just a half-mile away from the fire, the fire was already growing. The information he provided helped officials in Ennis and Dillon make quick decisions that could mean the difference between a small fire or one that raced through thousands of acres of parched land.

The Forest Service was ready for just such a case.

This year, just like the tinder-dry year of 2000, federal land managers have held back fire fighting resources to make quick initial attacks when small fires show themselves.

"When things get this dry, we have something called severity funding, which allows us to field additional resources for initial attack on new fires," said Jack de Golia, spokesman for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

The idea is to be able to attack the fires while there's still a chance to control them. On this day, there was a helicopter ready for initial attack at the Dillon airport.

A larger helicopter, capable of hauling 200 to 300 gallons of water at a time, was working the Hidden Lake Fire near Polaris. It was diverted to help fight the new Sureshot Fire.

Just to make sure, a tanker filled with retardant was ordered to take off from Kalispell toward the new fire. And smokejumpers from West Yellowstone were soon airborne.

Even in the relatively small amount of time that it took for the helicopters to arrive maybe 40 minutes from the time the fire was called in the fire was already starting to move. From a vantage point alongside the road, onlookers could see trees torching and flames shooting upwards of 50 feet into the air.

With a lake nearby, it didn't take long for those flames to disappear when the large helicopter arrived on the scene. Every two to three minutes, the helicopter swooped over the fire and dropped huge buckets of water onto hot spots.

Within a half hour, it was evident that the firefighters now starting to trickle onto the scene wouldn't need the retardant drop and it was directed to place that load on a stubborn section of the Hidden Lake Fire.

"At $5,000 a drop, we don't take those lightly," said de Golia. "The air tankers can not land with a full load and so we chose to put in a place where it would do the most good."

Four of the eight smokejumpers from West Yellowstone parachuted into the fire to help others arriving on the scene.

By Friday morning, fire fighters had corralled the fire and were mopping up. It was the perfect example of how initial attack operations can make a huge difference during dry years like this one, de Golia said.

"With the dry lightning and very dry conditions that we have now, we've been picking up between one and two fires a day over the last little while," he said. "Initial attacks are critical so those fires don't get away from us."

"We pick up 98 percent or better of the fires that start on public lands," said de Golia. "It's the one or two percent that we couldn't get on right away that blew up on us that are making all the headlines right now."

Petroni said early detection is the key and the Forest Service can use everyone's help keeping watch for smoke.

"If this fire had a little more time to build up some steam it could have easily become catastrophic," said Petroni. "You should never assume that someone else has already called it in. We can use all the help we can get."

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.


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