July 31, 2008

Homeowners Recall Anxiety of Cactus Fire

By Nick Gevock, The Montana Standard, Butte

Jul. 31--WHITEHALL -- Clinton High knew the Cactus Fire was burning just a half mile from his home in the Pipestone area, but he said the anxiety didn't set in until he realized exactly how close the flames were.

"I started getting nervous when it started burning downhill," he said, pointing west at the charred trees and ground about a half mile away.

Homes scattered about the dry grass and timbered hills in the Pipestone area were threatened by the fire, which scorched 518 acres last week. But residents said help from Mother Nature and the quick attack by firefighters kept them from losing a single home or building.

They said the joint firefighting effort that involved federal, state and local firefighters kept a blaze that could have burned thousands of acres from growing.

The fire about 10 miles west of Whitehall was ignited by a lightning strike and flared up sometime July 19. Jean and Jack Thisius, who live at 105 Bay Road, said they were at Frontier Days in Whitehall, were coming home in the afternoon and saw emergency responders heading toward the area. Jean Thisius said she feared their recently finished house would go up in flames.

"We had only lived in our house for a week -- we wanted to live in it longer," Jean Thisius said. "When they said the fire was crowning, that's when I got nervous because I knew how fast a fire can travel then." Laura Spencer, who lives on Prospectus Loop, recalled that they were told to be prepared for a mandatory evacuation. She prepared herself to lose her home.

"They said to go in and get packed up -- anything you want to take get ready to go," she said.

The interagency team assigned to the fire included Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and several local fire departments. Aircraft and helicopters dropped water and retardant on the blaze to protect structures and slow the fire.

And firefighters from the Whitehall and Butte-Silver Bow departments brought in engines to individual homes. The flames reached within 50 yards of one cabin, but was stopped by fire retardant and a crew of firefighters building a fire line and dousing the flames.

Spencer said the firefighters did an excellent job.

"That was awesome, for them to be at individual homes with people watching out for them," she said.

The wind shifted from coming out of the west to coming form the east. That helped push the fire back into itself. In addition, the second day of the fire was cool and overcast, keeping the relative humidity at about 25 percent, said Don Copple, DNRC fire manager from Dillon who worked as incident commander early in the blaze.

But just as helpful in the effort to protect homes was the work that landowners have done to make their properties more fire resistant, Copple said. Numerous homeowners in the area have removed grass, trees and brush from near their homes.

"For the ones that did, it did make a difference," he said of the effort to remove fuels. "The way that the fire was moving and the speed, we thought that there were 100 homes that were threatened." Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at [email protected]


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