CANYON CREEK — An informational meeting at the schoolhouse here Thursday night grew as hot as the nearby Davis Fire as residents angrily questioned Lincoln District Ranger Amber Kamps on her reasons for going ahead with a prescribed burn Wednesday that turned into the 2,800-acre, out-of-control blaze the following day.

“Why did you start a burn yesterday when we knew that the wind was going to blow 30 miles per hour two days ago?” Lynn England asked in disbelief. “What the hell were you guys thinking?”

Others noted that it’s common sense not to burn ditches or light other types of fires in the summer months, and that open burning by county residents had been prohibited for the past few days.

Kamps stood in front of the 50 or so people crowded into the schoolhouse and apologized, saying that she took full responsibility for the wildfire.

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am that we have to meet under these conditions and that you are having to go through this,” Kamps said. “I can’t make it up to you; I can just tell you I’m sorry and we will do the best we can from this point forward as we have been doing all day, to reduce the impacts on your lives and to get those of you evacuated back in your homes.”

She explained that she met with fire management officers on Tuesday at Granite Butte, talking about what their objectives were for the prescribed burn at this site, and whether the weather would be appropriate. They wanted to remove dead and dying trees to reduce fuels, and take out some aspen, Douglas fir and pines that were encroaching into meadows. They also wanted to create a better environment for whitebark pines, which regenerate well in places recently burned.

She said they got a “spot weather” report from the National Weather Service Tuesday, and again on Wednesday. The reports predicted temperatures around 70 degrees at the high elevation burn site on Granite Butte, relative humidity around 20 percent and winds less than 10 miles per hour — exactly what the Forest Service wanted — even though Helena’s high reached 90 degrees Wednesday.

“We had the green light with the weather conditions to move forward,” Kamps said, adding that the recent heavy rains, along with wet weather earlier this summer, caused her to believe that they could do the type of burns usually postponed until September or October.

They lit a test fire, but that didn’t catch well. Kamps said they almost decided the humidity was too high to go forward with the burn, but instead waited an hour and tried again, this time successfully.

Kamps said it wasn’t until later Wednesday afternoon that the red flag warning was issued.

“Before we got the red flag warning we had already shut down ignition,” Kamps said.

The fire was supposed to be in a 100-acre area. But Wednesday afternoon, it had jumped outside the boundary onto another 20 acres. For reasons not fully explained at Thursday night’s meeting, the fire wasn’t fully extinguished.

Greg Archie, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is the incident commander for what’s now being called the Davis fire. He was helping the Forest Service with the prescribed burn Wednesday, and said that when they returned on Thursday morning, he brought “65 people to deal with that 20 acres.” They also had nine engines, three water tenders and a helicopter as they started the day.

“We were making pretty good headway collecting all the spots, controlling the 20-acre slop-over, when a spot came up that we hadn’t had any people on and were not aware of,” Archie said. “Once it got going and started to branch out in the subalpine fir, it’s pretty alarming in the way it can spread.”

The prescribed burn turned into a wildfire by 1 p.m. in the upper portion of Gould Creek, growing from 20 to 100 acres in an hour. Archie said they couldn’t safely put people on it, so they called for an air tanker and retardant, as well as other resources. By 8 p.m. the Davis fire was estimated to cover 2,800 acres.

Ryan Grady, who said he lost about 1,000 acres to the blaze, praised the firefighters for their effort.

“This was the greatest response I’ve ever seen,” he said.

But another woman tearfully noted how her two children were home alone at the time the fire exploded, and said had she known the Forest Service was going to set the prescribed burn she would have taken them with her.

“I could have lost my children,” she said.

John Ottman also questioned Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Mike Murray as to why the Forest Service was allowed to light fires when open burning was prohibited for the rest of the community.

“The federal government doesn’t abide by county rules,” Murray said. “We don’t like it. We work together, but they don’t abide by our rules. They don’t need burn permits.”

A second informational meeting will be held Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse. The Red Cross is stationed there, and people needing aid can just stop by or call them at 1-800-ARC-MONT.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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