On Monday, Angie Pomponio had just finished unpacking all of her family’s emergency fire boxes — plastic tubs she has filled with spare clothes, medications and a few other essentials and staged in the garage every wildfire season since the catastrophic fires of 2015.
Her husband, Dom, a member of the local fire department, was away getting firewood for the family home at Clover, a few miles west of Orofino. Pomponio figured the fire season was probably past, and there was no need to keep the emergency boxes ready.
“It had cooled off, and we’d had a little rain, so I thought we were done,” she said. “I just felt like we were OK; we’re out of the woods, and I was like, ‘Let’s get ready for fall mode.’ Like an idiot.”
Her mother-in-law called from Orofino and told Pomponio she’d heard something on the scanner about a fire in that area.
“I stood up and just looked out the door, and you could see the smoke and an orange glow,” Pomponio recalled. The blaze was rapidly moving her way.
She told her 10-year-old son, Dominic, to get his shoes on.
“We had to go,” she said. “We literally had to make a run for it.”
She and her son headed for their pickup truck, grabbing their two cats and three dogs. One kitten, Marge, leaped out of the truck before they could pull away.
About that same time, a Clearwater County Sheriff’s deputy circled in their driveway, warning the family to evacuate immediately. Her husband showed up “and he’s screaming: ‘Leave the car doors open and get out. It’s coming.’ ”
Pomponio said a wall of flames was bearing down on them, and as she scrambled to get her son and herself out of there her son was crying for the kitten that had gotten away and for the family’s pet goats.
But it was too late to stop and collect all the critters. The Pomponios headed toward a neighbor’s house and were shocked to see that place already engulfed in flames.
“I thought: ‘This is it. The wind was unreal. It was like little fire tornadoes. The wind was blowing toward us hard and fast. We were just sure our place was gone. It was hard to watch. We saw to our east a giant plume of smoke, and within 10 minutes that had joined our fire and was blowing up the top of the hill.”
‘Those are all heros’
Shortly before 2 p.m. Monday, the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release saying it had received many 911 calls about fire in the Clover Drive area.
The Sunnyside Complex of fires, as it was being called, consisted of two fires — the one at Clover and a second at mile marker 49 called the MM49 fire. Together, the blazes were estimated at 600 acres and were racing across the breaks and benches on the north side of the Clearwater River between Ahsahka and Cavendish. Wind speeds were clocked at 50 mph in some places, and sheriff’s deputies sped through the area ordering people to evacuate immediately. Roads were closed to traffic. Power lines were down. Part of U.S. Highway 12 was reduced to one lane as burning debris rolled to the roadway. By Tuesday evening, a Northern Rockies Incident Management Team was called in to oversee the response, but it was local fire departments, including the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association and the U.S. Forest Service, that were first on the scene.
Don Gardner, emergency management officer for Clearwater County, said the homes that caught fire “were totally devastated. It’s amazing how fast that fire moved. It destroyed everything in its path. It was wind-driven.”
In one harrowing incident, a Clearwater County Sheriff’s deputy escaped harm Tuesday when his patrol pickup was destroyed by fire after he drove up a one-way road to check on residents and the vehicle stopped running.
The Clover Fire’s cause has not yet been determined, but Gardner, who spent more than 20 years himself as a firefighter, said what impressed him the most “was how hard the local volunteers went after this fire. Listening to the radio traffic and listening to the officer that lost his vehicle while trying to do evacuations — those are all heroes,” he said. “The officers and the firefighters went above and beyond.”
By Wednesday evening, the Clover Fire had mushroomed to 1,632 acres, and the MM49 Fire was estimated at 829 acres.
Altogether 13 homes, 31 outbuildings and 26 vehicles, including the sheriff’s office patrol vehicle, were lost to the blaze.
Threat wanes, but fires burn on
Crews built containment lines around much of the Clover Fire and began direct and indirect line construction along the flanks of the MM49 Fire on Thursday, said Jennifer Costich-Thompson, public information officer for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team. Structure and point protection efforts successfully defended the remaining homes in the area from destruction.
Clearwater County Sheriff Chris Goetz reopened most of the roads late Wednesday evening to allow residents to return to their property. People who do not live in the area were asked to stay away, however, as heavy equipment was still working, and the fires had not totally been suppressed.
Fire continued to burn in the Clover area, but Costich-Thompson said crews managed to keep it contained within the original fire perimeter. The MM49 fire was still active and moving in timber stringers along the Clearwater River.
“That fire continued to burn in that canyon all the way up to the upper bench where there are agriculture wheat fields, and between the fact that many farmers have already harvested and done discing, the engine crews and water tenders have been able to keep it in that canyon,” Costich-Thompson said. “There’s a lot of smoke, but the crews have been very successful thus far doing direct line construction along the northern flank, and that has not moved much since late on Tuesday.”
Wednesday night, a total of 261 firefighters were working on the blazes; by the end of the week, that number had jumped to 292.
Red Cross response
On Wednesday, a crew of volunteers from the Idaho and Montana district of the American Red Cross arrived in Orofino and began going up and down the streets to check on people displaced by the fire and assess their needs.
“We were in contact with local emergency managers and government officials and had an active presence in Orofino,” said Matt Ochsner, regional communications director for the Red Cross at Missoula. “We were working hard to get that message out that we are providing services, and all our services are free.”
By Wednesday night, Ochsner said, 19 people were being housed by the Red Cross at the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston. The agency also was providing meals for those families and connecting them with community resources, including mental health support, help to replace medications and other immediate needs.
That kind of response, he said, is typical following a natural disaster such as fire.
“We spend year around preparing for disaster so we’re able to respond quickly when things like fire happen,” he said. “Ninety percent of our workforce is powered by volunteers and the generosity of our donors. We are there to help them out. They’re going through a difficult time, and we’re just trying to make things a little bit easier and put them on a road to recovery.”
The agency solicits donations throughout the year, and when services are rendered to those in need there is no obligation for them to pay the money back.
Red Cross blood drives are not part of the emergency response. And with wildfires going on throughout the West, blood drives, especially in California, are being canceled. The need for blood, however, remains, and people wishing to help might consider scheduling a blood donation, Ochsner said.
“We’re just so grateful for our volunteers who raise their hand and go out the door in a moment’s notice to help their neighbors,” he said. “We’ll continue to provide services as long and they’re needed.”
‘We got incredibly lucky’
It was agony for the Pomponio family waiting out the fire at a nearby neighbor’s. They watched as sheets of fire spread through the canyon and jumped the highway. Angie Pomponio said their hearts were heavy thinking about their pet goats, sheep and alpaca back at home. If they’d even survived, she said, the animals would surely have been traumatized by the fire and all the heavy equipment plowing fire lines around the surviving buildings.
And she worried about all the precious memories that could have been lost, including all the digital pictures of her 10-year-old son.
The next day, a sheriff’s deputy escorted them back to their house and allowed them one hour to gather up whatever belongings they could find.
“It was really crazy,” Pomponio said. “Our house was intact. Unbelievable.”
The fire had ravaged the pasture and surrounding vegetation, but the Pomponios’ home sat in a little oasis of green. They found out later that a firefighter from the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protection Association had come in with a grader and cut a fireline around their house and rescued their animals.
“They survived. The guy saw them and plowed through their fence and saved them,” she said.
The animals were frightened and several of the goats’ tails and eyelashes were scorched by the heat. But they managed to gather up all the critters — including Marge, the runaway kitty — and haul them to the Clearwater County Fairgrounds at Orofino where several other families were boarding their livestock and pets.
Finally, on Thursday, Sheriff Goetz lifted the evacuation order, and people were allowed back to their homes.
Relieved, Pomponio said the experience put things into perspective.
“We got incredibly lucky,” she said. “All the animals are accounted for, and we were safe, and the animals were safe and everything else was no big deal.
“We literally have zero complaints.”
Anyone wishing to contact the American Red Cross may call (800) 853-2570 or visit the website at www.redcross.org.
Hedberg may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 983-2326.