The fire ring looks like any other found alongside the network of dirt roads that snake north of Columbia Falls into the Flathead National Forest. It sits in a pullout off Forest Service road 316D, in a place where revelers drank beer and played with fire sometime around July 21 or 22. Investigators don’t know exactly how a burning ember ended up lodged inside a rotten stump about 20 feet from the fire ring. They don’t know whether the initial spark floated out of a campfire, or if it instead came from a discarded cigarette, smoldering cigar or errant firework.
“We cannot say the exact activity, but a human did start this fire,” said Forest Service fire investigator Jay Deist. Deist and fellow investigator Kim West led a recent tour of the trigger point blamed for this summer’s catastrophic Robert Fire, which burned 57,570 acres, cost $30,744,892 to fight and caused the evacuation of West Glacier, Blankenship Road and Apgar Village. The mammoth blaze filled the Flathead Valley with smoke for weeks on end and caused a dramatic drop in tourism revenue as it blocked the North Fork Road and closed the west entrance to Glacier National Park.
The fire was spotted simultaneously by a patrol plane and from the Huckleberry Fire Lookout. Around 4:30 p.m. on July 23, the lookout reported smoke on a ridge to the south of Canyon Creek. At the time, the Park Service employee manning the lookout was busy writing a letter to his father. When asked if there was anything nearby to name the new fire after, the lookout reportedly glanced down at the letter to his father, whose name is Robert.
Initially, Forest Service crews thought a lightning strike might have started the fire on a knoll above the campfire ring. But when investigators Deist and West examined the area, they pinpointed the ignition site as an old stump beneath a giant larch tree—literally a cigarette flick away from the fire ring, which was littered with the remnants of a beer bash. Investigators won’t say which brand or brands of beer were consumed, but do confirm there were empties at the scene.
Even after the start of the Robert Fire—with a burn ban strictly in place—the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department was still busting beer-and-campfire parties out in the woods.
Detective Pat Walsh said a deputy with the department came upon a couple of partiers who rolled their vehicle over the bank on a road near Upper Whitefish Lake. When the deputy determined that everyone in the vehicle was OK, he ordered them back to the nearby scene of a party that had just broken up. “He said, ‘You get up here and help me put this fire out,’” said Walsh.
Early efforts to squelch the Robert Fire proved futile, as a light 5 mph westerly wind shifted eastward and increased to at least 20 mph. During the recent tour of the investigation site, Deist walked to the point where the Robert Fire really took off. He stood on a Forest Service road pointing out clues that reveal the fire’s movement and intensity. He examined a pair of cottonwoods with charred branches. Each blackened branch had succumbed to the force of the advancing fire and was bent unnaturally eastward.
“It’s called ‘freezing,’” explained Deist. “The heat and wind—it points the direction of the fire.”
Two hours after it was reported, the Robert Fire jumped the North Fork of the Flathead River and entered Glacier National Park. By midnight that day, it had consumed 1,900 acres of forestland.
“Where the main path went, there was nothing left,” said Deist.
Flathead Forest information officer Ken Frederick added that his agency wants to find out who started the Robert Fire, “not just to prevent future fires, but if we can recover some of the costs, we want to do that, too.”
This year, the Forest Service billed Plum Creek Timber Co. $11 million for a pair of fires the company allegedly caused during the 2000 wildfire season.
When it comes to assigning blame for wildfires, cases can wind up in either civil or criminal court. That’s why a group called the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Fire Investigation Team is currently putting together a certified training program for fire investigators. The program will help ensure that expert testimony stands up in court, said the group’s Chairman Paul Steensland.
Steensland helped investigate 2000’s notorious Hayman Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo. Also known as the “Love Letter Fire,” the point of origin was traced to a campfire where a Forest Service employee burned love letters before the flames got out of control. In that case, the jilted Forest Service employee reported the fire, but lied to investigators. She told them she smelled smoke from a direction that wasn’t downwind of the fire. This clue and others helped investigators pin blame for the blaze on her.
In an early, landmark case that showed how forensic evidence can help solve wildland fire investigations, a California man was linked to a blaze by his dog’s paw print. Investigators actually cast prints of a suspect’s dog, then matched them to those found near the start-point of the fire.
Generally, said Steensland, investigators solve only 10 to 20 percent of cases involving non-arson, human-caused wildfires. The success rate for arson investigations, on the other hand, is better than 90 percent.
So far, investigators working the Robert Fire aren’t calling it an arson case.
“Somebody out there knows who was here,” said fire investigator Deist, referring to the campfire party spot where the Robert Fire began. Anyone with information about this blaze can call 758-5267.