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Did plans backfire at Dickson Creek?

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About a month before “Black Sunday,” the day that numerous fires blew up in the south Bitterroot Valley and consumed dozens of homes, Sula volunteer fireman Bill Campbell delivered a stern, one-hour lecture to the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners. The Sula Volunteer Fire Department could not, and would not, he said, respond to fires or other emergencies in the remote Dickson Creek neighborhood south of Darby.

The neighborhood was difficult to negotiate; roads were rutted and unpaved, road signs non-existent, house numbers missing. If the landowners cherished their isolation, fine, he said. But they’d also have to live with the consequences—slow or no emergency responders.

A month later, firefighters were doing battle with an unprecedented number of large, erratic fires in the south Bitterroot Valley which roared to life on the afternoon of Aug. 6. Forest Service firefighters lit a backfire to combat the Gilbert and Spade fires which were menacing the remote drainages south of Darby.

Some Dickson Creek homeowners now believe that backfire backfired. Ten homes were destroyed in the drainage and the backfire itself was caught on video by a woman who lives across Highway 93 from Dickson Creek—Wannie Campbell, wife of the Sula fireman who had issued the warning about Dickson Creek’s indefensibility only a month earlier.

Days after the Dickson Creek firestorm, Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Rodd Richardson called for an interagency investigation of the homeowners’ claims that a Forest Service-lit backfire was responsible for the destruction of their homes.

That report was inconclusive, and so the burned-out homeowners, who call themselves “Backfire 2000,” have hired the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Howrey, Simon, Arnold & White, LLP, to help them find out what really happened on the afternoon of Aug. 6, and to be compensated for their losses.

Approximately 50 families in the Conner and Sula areas lost their homes on Black Sunday. An additional 100 or more families and many businesses suffered significant property and economic damages primarily in the vicinity of Dickson Creek, Laird Creek, Warm Springs, and the Highway 93 corridor.

“Neighbors looking after neighbors, friends helping friends, has been the attitude from the very beginning,” says the group’s spokesman, Greg Tilford in a statement issued last week.

“This spirit has carried over as the group has come together to try to recover from the devastation. We quickly realized we needed outside help to sort things out—to work with the different levels of government, to learn our rights, and to pursue possible remedies.”

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