HAMILTON — In the 23 years he’s been fighting wildfires, Derek Davenport has never seen anything quite like what unfolded on the first day of the Observation fire.
When a single lightning strike started the fire southwest of Hamilton, the Bitterroot National Forest fire crews were gathered in Sula for a preparedness review.
At about noon on June 24, they received a call that the Deer Mountain Lookout had spotted smoke near Observation Point.
Any other day, Davenport, an assistant fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, would have sent one engine module — a truck packing 300 gallons of water and between five to seven firefighters — on a call like this one.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, we would catch the fire with just that engine crew,” he said. “Since we were all there together, I told a 10-member hand crew to go, too, in order to make quick work of it.”
Davenport was hoping they could get back soon enough to finish the review.
Initially, the fire crews were met with winds ranging between 15 to 20 mph. But that changed in a hurry.
“They started getting winds from 40 to 50 mph,” he said. “That’s very rare and uncommon.'' And difficult to fight.
The firefighters couldn’t get out in front of the blaze to stop its run.
"The wind was pushing the fire into areas (where) they couldn’t engage it,'' Davenport said. "It was literally burning almost on a cliff.”
The firefighters attempted to chase it from behind, but the fire kept moving.
The crews called for more resources, including the helicopter staged at the Hamilton airport. But the pilot quickly realized he couldn’t drop water due to the high winds.
At that point, the lead firefighter on the scene determined the blaze was beyond initial attack capabilities. And Davenport hurried to the scene.
The wind-driven fire had spread out like a mosaic, burning in dead and downed timber and also torching in treetops.
“It wasn’t burning very much in the grass because that was still too green,” he said. “There was a lot of dead and downed timber, lots of big stuff. The fire was getting established in that.”
At that point, the fire was also torching in treetops.
“The wind kept throwing it and throwing it and throwing it further and further away,” Davenport said.
The steep terrain, coupled with the high winds, meant the fire was moving in two directions at once. The winds would push the fire 100 feet up the hillside, while burning debris would roll down the steep hillside at the same time. And heavy smoke made seeing parts of the blaze difficult.
“It was burning uphill as fast as it was going downhill,'' Davenport said. "I thought, 'This was crazy.' I had never seen anything like this in my life."
On that first day, the firefighters and aviation resources had everything going against them.
There were extremely high winds. Some of the terrain was so steep that firefighters couldn’t even get close enough to fight the fire. And heavy smoke made it difficult to see some parts of the blaze.
“In all the trainings that we go through, you hear that you will never run into all these different elements at once,” Davenport said. “We had them all at one time.”
Davenport immediately called for more resources, including two 22-member Hotshot crews and two more 10-person hand crews. He also asked for more helicopters.
“I knew the winds would be a lot less in the morning,” Davenport said. “My goal at that time was to pound the hell out of the perimeter all morning long and then come in and mop up the interior.
“I ordered the world,” he said. “I was spending lots of money, but I knew the whole Bitterroot was at risk. … We were spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to try to catch this fire.”
But it wasn't enough.
On Tuesday, the fire doubled in size and those living in 203 residences were warned to be ready to evacuate.
Davenport said the index firefighters use to gauge the potential for unstable air, which contributes to the development of erratic fire behavior, was nearly as high as it gets.
On the day the fire doubled in size and worried authorities enough to place 203 residences on evacuation notice, Davenport said the index firefighters use to measure the potential for unstable air to contribute to the development of erratic fire behavior was nearly as high as it gets.
“We had a Haines Index of five,” he said. “At a Haines Index of six, you know you’re going to catch the fire that day.”
Four or five helicopters were supporting firefighters on the ground when suddenly the fire took off through a stand of dead, beetle-killed lodgepole pine.
“There was no warning,” Davenport said. “Once it got established in those fuels, it just ripped. We had firefighters in that area. We knew that we needed to get them out as soon as possible.”
The fire burned 325 acres in about a half hour.
“What saved us was an old clear cut,” he said. The fire hit a unit that had been replanted and “it just fell flat on its face.”
After that large run occurred, Davenport said the decision was made to bring in a Type 1 team, which took over management of the fire Friday. On Saturday, the fire was still only 10 percent contained, although weather conditions were improving.
Looking back on that first day, Davenport said he’s proud of the initial effort the firefighters made to put the fire out.
“I have told them that it’s not their fault,” he said. If the most complex fire challenge were a 10, "this was a 9.5."
"They were outgunned. You couldn’t have brought a large enough army. No one could have known that in late June those large fuels would have burned like it was the middle of August,” he said.
“My people are proud of what they do. Protecting people’s homes is important to them.
“It crushed their hearts when they lost it,” he said. “I know how hard they fought on that hill. I know the sweat and the pain they felt.
"They gave it everything they had.”