By Martin Kidston
HAMILTON – The breeze began to pick up in Hamilton just after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, warning of what meteorologists predicted could be a rough afternoon on the Roaring Lion fire.
With a red flag warning in place and the 4,400-blaze skunking around the steep canyon just outside of town, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department expanded the mandatory evacuation area further to the northeast.
The department also implemented an evacuation notice to a new area between the fire and Hamilton itself, fearing the blaze could make a run in that direction.
“We have a red flag warning and an out-of-the-ordinary cold front approaching, as far as wind speeds coming in from the west,” said fire information office Mike Cole. “Wind speeds are supposed to pick up 30 to 40 miles per hour sustained with gusts of 50 mph.”
A Type 1 incident command team has transformed Hamilton High School into a full-fledged command center, complete with finances, logistics and a growing fire camp. The fire sent up columns of smoke just to the west, nearly shrouding the deep canyons beyond.
Cole said the fire has made a small uphill run to the west, though with the predicted winds, it could push east toward populated areas. Already, Cole said, 14 homes have been lost, along with numerous outbuildings.
“This morning, we were trying to tighten those lines up and improve them,” Cole said, noting firefighters’ efforts to defend vulnerable structures. Crews have also placed fire lines east of the blaze, hoping to stop an advance in that direction.
“We’ve got temperatures pushing into the 90s and relative humidity in the single digits,” Cole said. “Everything is lined up for a perfect storm, if you look at it that way.”
Throughout the day, residents poured over changing maps at the fire command center, including Wally and Judy Grewe. They fled their home on Sunday after a neighbor called and told them a fire had started a mile west.
“We were out of our house within 45 minutes with whatever we could grab,” said Judy. “As soon as we heard there was a fire, we started packing. We knew this was bad.”
Grewe was surprised to return on Monday to find the family’s home still standing. Her neighbor, however, wasn’t so fortunate.
“When we left Sunday, I saw these huge flames over my shoulder and it was black and pink, just horrible looking,” said Grewe. “I personally thought we’d have no home to come back to. Our home was spared, but our neighbor’s home just to the west was destroyed.”
The neighbor has been taken in by friends in Darby while the Grewe family has found a place with relatives in Corvallis.
“All of us that live up in the area were on the phone talking to each other,” said Grewe. “A lot of people didn’t get their animals out. They closed the road immediately.”
Cole compared the fire’s rapid growth to an incident he worked last summer in Kamiah, Idaho.
“We had a wind event and the evacuations, you couldn’t announce them quick enough because they were happening so fast,” said Cole. “That’s out biggest concern, getting into a situation where this fire starts moving and you don’t have time to notify people.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org