The following story was originally written by Dillon Kato and posted on-line on the Missoulian website - Photographs posted by Elizabeth Shellenbarger/ Bitterroot National Forest Helitack
One of the firefighters on the crew that found a pair of mountain lion cubs in a fire near Florence [Montana] said she's glad both animals got out of the situation unharmed.
Elizabeth Shellenbarger, a member of the Bitterroot National Forest Helitack crew based in Hamilton that was one of the first teams to respond to the Three Mile fire, said she was on the ground Friday afternoon digging a fire line when her crew started hearing noises.
"We kept hearing a sound, it sounded like a bird crying," she said.
Minutes later, one of the seven-member crew yelled out to the others that they had found a baby mountain lion. Shellenbarger said it was in some thick brush by a log that was on fire. The crew grabbed the animal, and then called in a bucket drop from a helicopter, which doused the area with 600 gallons of water.
"Right after the water hit the ground, we realized there was a second kitten that got hit by the brunt of it," Shellenbarger said.
The fire crew recovered the second cub, which she said had started to roll down the hill, mixed up in the mud and water from the drop. Shellenbarger said it's unusual for crews working a fire to see much wildlife, especially so close.
"We were wondering where the mom was, that was kind of the dangerous part of it, if she had come back and we're there between her and her kids," she said.
The helitack crew called a dispatch center, which got in touch with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who sent a warden out to retrieve the two cubs.
Shellenbarger and the team she was with hiked out from the fire line to where their vehicles were parked.
"We sat in the sun and helped dry them off. The one that got hit by water was pretty caked in mud, and he was shivering the whole walk out," she said.
Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay said Montana FWP brought the animals, both males that are just one or two weeks old, to its Montana Wildlife Center in Helena, where the agency rehabilitates orphaned, injured and displaced wildlife. No decisions have been made yet on when or if the cubs can be re-released into the wild.
Shellenbarger said she was told the mother of the mountain lion cubs was possibly seen around the fire area Saturday, but Shellenbarger said she wasn't sure what would happen to the young mountain lions now.
"They may try bringing the kittens back, put them back in the place where we found them," she said.
McKay said as of Sunday, the Three Mile fire, about nine miles east of Florence, was fully contained and had not grown since it started Friday. The fire is still at 48 acres, and he said fire engines and crews were finishing up mop up work, but he expected them to be released by the end of the day Sunday.
McKay confirmed Sunday that the fire was human caused. Investigators were at the scene where the fire started gathering information and evidence.