River Road East fire nears 17,000

At least seven residences burned

 

August 17, 2023

Ed Moreth

A Forest Service firefighter sprays water on the fire on Friday afternoon.

UPDATE AUGUST 21, 2023, 8 a.m .: A resident reported that the large white barn at Kennedy Creek (across from what is known at the Paradise Spring area) burned overnight. Highway 200 is re-opened. The River Road East Fire is now listed at 16,790 acres.

by Annie Wooden

The River Road East Fire near Paradise has grown to more than 13,000 acres. Fire officials held a public meeting at Plains High School on Sunday afternoon, updating the community on fire activity.

The fire as of Sunday afternoon is 13,414 acres and 0% contained. While a release from the Lolo National Forest on Friday afternoon stated that the fire was caused by lightning, officials at the meeting on Sunday said the cause is still under investigation. Ranger Dave Wrobleski with the Plains/Thompson Falls Ranger District stated that the fire started on the east end of Paradise, near the intersection of River Road East and Highway 200.

First reports of fire activity were called in to emergency services around 2 p.m. on Friday. By 3:30 p.m., the fire had spread west toward Pat’s Knob. High winds and dry conditions fueled the fire. By mid-afternoon the fire had grown to 500 acres and the wind carried burning embers north, causing the fire to jump the river and spark spot fires above the Paradise School. Bill Naegeli with the Sanders County Office of Emergency Management stated that during the initial response on Friday, every fire department in the county had at least one apparatus or engine in Paradise to help protect structures. He noted that fire departments from neighboring counties also responded.

As of Sunday afternoon, at least seven residences and 27 structures had burned in the fire, according to Bill Naegeli with the Sanders County Office of Emergency Management. A Northern Rockies Incident Management Team took over firefighting operations Saturday evening. Incident Commander Brent Olson said that the fire is “very close” to Pat’s Knob on the southwest side and crews are working to protect the communication towers on top of the mountain. “We feel like we’re doing everything we can,” Olson said, adding that a Wyoming Hotshot crew has worked to clear trees in the area and planes dropped retardant around the towers. Naegeli said it would be catastrophic to the county if the fire reached the communication towers. “It’s a key communication hub for Mineral and Sanders counties,” Naegeli stated. He noted that protecting the area is one of the top priorities for the firefighting team.

Naegeli also noted that it was a phenomenal effort to get a Type I incident management team on site in three days. “Members of the team were out there helping fight the fire before they even took over,” Naegeli explained. “We’re very blessed they got here in three days.” Olson said the team was headed to northern Idaho to manage the Ridge Creek Fire and were redirected to the River Road East Fire.

Jessica and Michael Guciardo lost their home in the McLaughlin Creek area. “Our house is gone,” Jessica Guciardo said Sunday. “We had no warning. Everything is gone.” They have owned their property on Upper Lamaraux Creek Road in Paradise for about 10 years, she said, and lived there for three. “We couldn’t see the fire but we saw smoke and left. We only had about 20 minutes. We took some clothes and our dogs,” she explained. Jessica added that they found out her home had burned because her husband went through a police barricade to check on their property. She said Michael was arrested but was later released. Jessica said she even lost her wedding rings in the wildfire. Guciardo encouraged other people to be prepared in case their property is threatened by fire. “Pack and be ready to go.” While the Guciardos are staying with a friend and have reached out to the Red Cross for support, “we just want to go home,” she said.

Sheriff Shawn Fielders addressed the more than 200 people at the public meeting on Sunday. “The community has really stepped up for displaced people and animals,” he said, asking people to be patient as authorities work to assess damage and protect structures. Fielders asked that people stay away from the fire area. “Please don’t go out just to see the fire. The traffic hazard alone can be really bad.” Residents from the McLaughlin Creek area who have been evacuated asked the sheriff when they would be able to return to their homes. Fielders said they will let residents know as soon as they can. “McLaughlin Creek is a nightmare. It breaks my heart that I can’t let you up there,” he expressed.

Annie Wooden

Sheriff Shawn Fielders addresses community members at a public meeting Sunday at Plains High School.

Olson, the incident commander, stated they have nearly 300 team members fighting the fire as of Sunday afternoon and are expecting more resources this week. The American Red Cross has set up a shelter at Church on the Move, 300 S. Clayton St., in Plains. The Sanders County fairgrounds is also open for evacuees, and Naegeli stated that the Mineral County fairgrounds has offered to take stock animals from residents.

Olson said the incident team is self-sufficient and does not need donations. Naegeli recommended that if people want to help they could make donations to local fire departments and organizations such as food banks.

MORE INFORMATION

River Road East Fire information line: 406-345-5972

Email: [email protected]

Website: https://inciweb.wildfire.gov/incident-information/mtlnf-river-road-east-fire

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/riverroadeastfire

 

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