Helena Scouts Spot & Call In Fire

Good things happen when Scouts are out and about and prepared for emergencies.

As Montana struggles with drought and fire danger, this is a great reminder we can help as we navigate the woods and backcountry.

Last month, Helena’s Troop 214, led by Scoutmaster Doug Wheeler, stumbled upon a fire and likely saved a lot of property if not lives.

The recount – outlined below –  is written by Troop Committee Chair, Beth Wheeler.

“One thing we learned from this,” said Wheeler, “is to bring collapsible buckets or a dry bag. We really had nothing that could effectively hold water to put it out.  It was lucky the wind died down.  The picture (below) is when it went dormant but that whole area was hot coals waiting to flare up.  We just happened to show up at the right time and spot it.

We had water bottles of course, but we needed large volumes of water due to the fire being not only above ground but 18″ below ground.”


On the evening of Friday, July 7, a Troop 214 backpacking group of seven Scouts and four adults headed out to start a two-night backpacking trip in the Elkhorn Mountains.

For four of the Scouts, this was their first backpacking trip. On Friday night, we set up camp about 1/2 mile from the trailhead.

Saturday morning at about 9:00 am, we set out for a 2.5-mile trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. We arrived at a spot between the two lakes at 11:45 am.

As Scout Master Doug Wheeler was talking to a hiker just to the south, SPL Gavin W. ran up and reported a fire. They went back to the group to evaluate the situation.

Adult Susan Bell had spotted smoke and a small fire on the west end of the smaller lake.  Assistant Scoutmaster Dave Mousel and adult Cory Albright made their way to the fire to investigate.

Upon their return, Dave, with the DNRC and having wildfire experience, reported that the fire was small and burning slowly, but was too big and dangerous for us to handle without proper equipment.

He said it was clearly caused by a campfire not extinguished and in an ill-advised location.

Dave recommended to Doug that an SOS be sent out to bring in firefighters.  The SOS call was made with the troop’s InReach satellite communicator.

Parts of the communication:

IERCC (11:57 am): This is the IERCC call center.  What is the nature of your emergency?

Us: We just arrived at South Fork Lakes.  We found a campfire that has escaped and it is starting to spread.  We cannot put it out.  Not spreading fast, but dangerous.  We need the forest service to handle it.

IERCC: Are you in danger or injured?  How many are in your group?  How large is the fire?

Us: No imminent danger.  We are safe.  7 youth and 4 adults.  Small fire 20-30 ft in diameter smoldering.

IERCC: Please call the Helena Fire Desk at … to work with them directly.

Us:  Got it.  Message sent to Fire Desk.

IERCC:  Be advised that a helicopter is on the way to your location.  Clear the area around the lake.  Water drop will cause injury to anyone in area.

Us:  Got it.  Clearing area.

Fire Desk (12:31 pm):  How big?  Any open flames?  What fuels is the fire burning in?

Us: 20-30 ft area.  Open flames at times.  In duff.  Some ladder fuels nearby.  NW corner of the smaller of 2 lakes.

Us: Now no open flames and little smoke.  There is a small burned douglas fir at the campfire location.

Fire Desk.  Thank you.  We have people responding.  The helicopter will be up.  Please stay clear.

Us: Ok.

Fire Desk:  Thank you again for the information.  Another thing when staying clear for the helicopter, go up hill from the fire.

Us:  We are uphill at ridge SE of smaller lake.

(At 1:30 pm, helicopter makes a few passes and leaves)

Us:  I don’t think the helicopter could see it.  It became idle for awhile.  It picks up and drops as far as smoke level.

Fire Desk:  You still see smoke?  Or any kind of activity?

Us:  It’s gone dormant right now.  We still see smoke off & on.

Us:  Some hikers have come out and are going to try to work on the fire.

Fire Desk:  Ok, thank you.

Us (2:07 pm):  Fire underground.  Lots of hot spots.  Still need a crew.

Fire Desk: We have fire folks hiking in.  It would be best to stay away.  Thank you for the updates.

We decided based on the fire’s behavior that it would be safe to set up camp in the area, and just keep watch of its progress, especially knowing fire crews would soon be there.

The Scouts went about their activities of catching fish and lounging in hammocks.

At about 3:00 pm, a 2 man fire crew came in. SM Wheeler discussed the situation and fire location to one of the crew.  They proceeded to the fire, worked on it with picks, shovels, and collapsible buckets.

Fortunately, the fire was near the lake edge.  Another crew came in an hour later due to a flat tire.  They finished up at about 7:00 pm.

We spent the night and hiked out the next morning.  SM Wheeler wished there was someone to call to kill the swarm of mosquitos attacking him through the night.