FLORENCE – Some Ravalli County residents evacuated due to the 34,000 acre Lolo Peak Fire are back home.
Sheriff Steve Holton said on Thursday evening that Tie Chute Lane north to West County Line Road has been moved back into an evacuation warning status. Residents on the north side of Tie Chute Lane can gain permits for access at the Fire Information tent at Florence Farmer’s State Bank.
The downgrade comes as two members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet and two of Montana’s Congressional leaders toured the fire camp.
On Thursday Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke praised the “professionalism” of firefighters and other emergency teams coping with Montana’s major fire season. But he wants to “put firefighters out of a job” by using better forest management to stop “catastrophic fires” every summer — and his counterpart at the U.S. Forest Service feels exactly the same way.
A week ago, the Lolo Peak Fire was exploding in a wall of flame, but on Thursday it was being refreshed by badly needed rain showers.
Interior Secretary Zinke and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are looking beyond that particular fire. Accompanied by Montana U.S. Senator Steve Daines and Representative Greg Gianforte, Perdue had his first look at a fire camp.
The quartet’s briefing was closed to the press but some who attended told MTN News that it was a frank discussion about not just fire management, but how the community has been stressed by yet another massive fire in the Bitterroot — something that’s become an annual event.
“When we get to fight a fire the professionalism of our law enforcement, of the departments working together, the state, it all works well,” Secretary Zinke said. “We’re gonna make sure that the Department of Interior, and the Department of Agriculture team, because we’re all a team effort, work together.”
While Montana’s other U.S. Senator Jon Tester presses to solve the Forest Service’s budget problems by changing the system so fires can be paid for like other natural disasters, Secretary Perdue would rather see a permanent budget change.
“I don’t necessarily want emergency funding. I want ongoing funding,” Perdue said.
“I want to say this is not about money. It’s about management of our forests,” added Rep. Gianforte.
While there was some discussion during the press briefing about the need for funding to keep fighting fires, all four men talked more about the issue of forest management, getting ahead of fires so they don’t happen in the future.”
“That’s why we’re here. Trying to determine how we can get ahead of this. I’m not from Montana but I wouldn’t want these kinds of situations having to live with on a year-in, year-out basis. And we don’t want the people of Montana to either,” Perdue said.
“If we don’t address the litigation issue, the frivolous litigation from extreme environmental groups — we’re never going to get ahead of this curve,” said Daines.
The leaders presented a united front on how to tackle the fire problem with preparation, discounting the idea that climate change is solely to blame. It remains to be seen how those details can be pulled together to satisfy all the diverse views on the wildfire issue.
MTN’s Dennis Bragg