Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Smoke from Idaho pooling in the Bitterroot valley


By Michael Howell

If you based your judgment simply on the amount of smoke that has filled the valley over the last several days, you might think the entire Bitterroot National Forest must be on fire. Not so. Most of that smoke is coming in from Idaho. Close to a dozen fires are burning in the Idaho wilderness areas just to the west of the Bitterroot Valley and that smoke is drifting into Montana. On the Bitterroot National Forest there are currently only three fires burning, one near Downing Mountain west of Hamilton, one crossing over from Idaho up the West Fork, and a very small one up Fred Burr canyon.

So far the number of fire starts and the number of acres burned this year in the Bitterroot are about average. But this could change if conditions worsen, as they did last year when the fire season stretched into September and October and some late season weather events fanned the flames, pushing the number of acres burned up to 31,653. As of last Saturday, September 1, just 5,903 acres have burned on the Bitterroot National Forest this year.

Speaking of averages and to put things in perspective a bit, although the pall of thick smoke hanging over the valley reminds us of the Fires of 2000, that year about 300,000 to 350,000 acres burned on the Bitterroot National Forest. That was such a huge event and has so skewed the averages that it is generally left out of the computations. For instance, compare it to the last four years:

Year                  Fires                                    Acres Burned

2012                  88 (as of 9-3-12)                  7,651

2011                  69                                       31,653

2010                  80                                        1,474

2009                  73                                      11,330

2000                  275                                    350,000

Another interesting statistic is that fewer fires are being started on the Bitterroot National Forest. USFS fire statistics show that in a span of 12 years, between 1989 and 2000, seven out of 12 of those years had between 150 to 300 fire starts. In the 11 years since 2000, only three years topped 100 fire starts and none reached 150. So far this year there have been 86 fires on the forest.

Two of the fires currently burning on the forest, the 310-acre Sawmill Fire west of Hamilton near Downing Mountain and a small half-acre fire up Fred Burr canyon, both started on the forest following lighting storms. The third, the Mustang Complex Fire, is a very large fire moving into the West Fork from Idaho. It has burned about 205,000 acres overall, around 3,000 of which is in the Bitterroot National Forest.


The Sawtooth Fire burning on the Darby Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest was first reported on August 30 and has grown to 310 acres.

The lightning caused fire is located five miles west of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Mountains near Downing Mountain. The fire is approximately two miles southwest of the Downing Mountain Fire that burned in 2010.

The fire is currently moving to the west, away from town and is burning in extremely steep and rugged terrain on the top of the ridge, making it very difficult for firefighters to access on foot and a challenge for building conventional fire line. Heavy fuels, difficult access, and the weather are a dangerous combination on this fire.

Two helicopters are using buckets to drop water on the fire. A Type 2 incident team from Minnesota has arrived to spearhead the attack and an additional Type 1 Hotshot crew has also been ordered. Two 20-person contracted crews were expected to arrive on Monday and will work to stop the fire spread and put containment line around the fire’s western edge to keep it from reaching heavy fuels and timber.

There are currently no structures threatened. Trail #123 (Sawtooth Creek) is currently closed due to active wildfire conditions.


The Ravalli County Sheriff¹s Office has issued a Stage 1 Evacuation Notification for residents in the upper Hughes Creek drainage in response to the 205,000-acre Mustang Complex Fire burning on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. Some of the fire (approximately 3,000 acres) has burned into Montana on the Bitterroot National Forest.

People are on notification of the possibility of an evacuation if the fire threat becomes imminent. Thirty-seven structures are threatened in the area. Structure protection is being implemented on residences in the area. Structure protection plans are also currently being evaluated for the Lost Trail Ski Area.

Highway 93 remains open at this time, but the fire is slowly moving towards the highway. On Monday, according to fire officer Bruce Windhorst, the fire, at its closest point, was within three and a quarter miles of the highway.

On Thursday, August 30, the Bitterroot National Forest implemented an ‘emergency area closure’ on the West Fork Ranger District due to expected future fire behavior from the Mustang Fire (see accompanying map). The area closure includes Trails #650, #106 (Divide Trail), and Mine Creek Road #5688. Hughes Creek Road in Montana remains open along with Wood’s Creek Road. Access to Reynolds Lake Trailhead and Upper Blue Joint are also open at this time.


According to Windhorst, the small fire burning up Fred Burr canyon was spotted by a fire engine crew on patrol on Monday, August 27, following a lightning storm. It is burning in very steep inaccessible terrain on the north side of Fred Burr Creek. Helicopters are dropping water on the fire and as of Monday, September 3, no smoke was visible in the area. The area is being monitored both on the ground and in the air.

The weather forecast calls for continued warm and dry weather all week, creating conditions conducive to fire growth. Current conditions are extremely dry and the potential for fire spread is very high.  According to the National Weather Service, August was one of the driest months on record in Western Montana (since 1948) with Missoula only receiving 0.16” inches of rainfall.

Monday’s air quality in Hamilton was listed as Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups – people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion. For the latest air quality information visit or call County Environmental Health at 375-6565.

A fire information trailer is located south of Hamilton along Highway 93 across from Roaring Lion Road. It will be open from noon to 8 p.m. daily with the latest fire information, area closures and maps.

For more information visit

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