By Michael Howell
Over the course of the past week, the Lolo Peak Fire was brought to a standstill along the primary control line stretching from the Idaho border along Highway 12 east to Lolo and south to the mouth of One Horse Canyon. As a result, the evacuation order that had been in effect was lifted on Friday afternoon at 6 p.m. and road blocks that had been manned by National Guard troops were removed, except on Mormon Creek and Elk Meadows Roads. Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Burke said that about 1,150 residences and an estimated 3,000 people had been evacuated and have now been returning to their homes.
Weather inversions have kept much of the smoke trapped in the valley for days on end. Smoke was added by burn-outs that were being ignited along the control line to buffer it from the fire approach, a strategy that has worked well under recent conditions and has widened the initial control line up to 500 feet in places. On the southwest edge of the fire a very large burnout was conducted on the east side of Elk Meadows. Aerial ignition was used along with hand ignition by the Wyoming Hotshots that successfully blackened from 1,200 to 1,500 acres in front of the fire.
Burn-outs are also playing a key role in managing the slow southward march of the fire on its southeast flank along the Highway 93 corridor. Along this flank, Greg Poncin’s Type I team has jumped out ahead of the fire and enclosed areas with a fire line and burned out the interior with a low intensity fire. A series of these burned-out blocks of land is being done south from One Horse Creek that will be connected together as an additional buffer for the primary control line.
The latest two of these burn-outs took place at Bass Creek Campground and Larry Creek Campground on Saturday night with the second being lit just after midnight. The Flathead Hotshots started firing operations back up at Bass Creek at 5:30 p.m. and kept busy all night slowly working the fire down a hill in a controlled manner, completing the job at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning. The blocks being created are fully contained by fire line so fire introduced within each block cannot move further in any direction. Other blocks of land in areas that already are, or can be, enclosed by a combination of control line, trail or road are being either identified and/or prepped for future burnout operations south of Bass Creek. Like links in a chain, these burnouts are proceeding southward in front of the fire.
Fire behavior expert Dave Williams told people at a community meeting in Florence on Sunday evening that thunderstorms were predicted for Tuesday, Wednesday and ending on Thursday that could activate the fire. One serious concern, according to Williams, is that these storm winds could kick up the fire activity in the high elevations where it has been lingering. This is the time of year that the timber at that elevation generally dries out and becomes most combustible. The burnouts being done along the control line south of One Horse Creek are being strategically placed to help buffer and mitigate a fire if one should ignite in the upper canyon and be blown out by strong winds.
Incident Commander Greg Poncin expressed confidence in the strategy.
“We are out ahead of it in the One Horse, Sweeney Creek and Bass Creek areas,” said Poncin. “We feel if and when it gets going up high we will be ready for it.”
There has been a lot of helicopter activity in the area as they dropped water along the One Horse Creek ridgeline, keeping the fire from heading south into the drainage towards a stand of mixed conifer and lodgepole pine at the mouth of the canyon just west of Tie Chute Lane and improvements to the primary control line between Bass Creek Road and North Kootenai Creek Road will continue.
The Chena Hotshots hiked into the Little Joe cabin in the Bass Creek area to prepare it ahead of fire moving towards it by clearing trees and other vegetation close to the cabin. South of there, the Chief Mountain Hotshots have also completed hand line construction from the primary control line into the 2009 Kootenai Creek fire scar.
On Sunday, Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said everyone living west of Hwy 93 from Bass Creek Road north to Missoula County was still in an Evacuation Warning, and asked residents to remain prepared to evacuate based on weather forecasts and fire behavior. He said 114 National Guard soldiers were de-mobilized with approximately 38 soldiers still assigned to the incident to assist with various operations and security details on the Lolo Peak Fire.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office and local fire departments are also out ahead of the fire and even out ahead of the burnout efforts as they move into areas even further south making structure assessments, over 100 of which have been completed in this area bringing, to date, the completion of over 1000 structure assessments around the fire area. This activity precedes any declaration of warning in the area. It is done in preparation so that once an area is declared to be under evacuation or requires a warning, the declarations can be immediately implemented.
Staffed fire information is available in three locations: Super 1 Foods in Stevensville; Farmers State Bank in Florence; and the weigh station in Lolo at the corner of Highways 12 and 93. The Firewise Trailer is now located at the Super 1 parking lot at Stevensville.
Tuesday was to be the last day for Greg Poncin’s Northern Rockies Type I Team. A replacement team under Doug Turman was due to show up for transition on Monday and Tuesday and will be in control of the Lolo Peak Fire on Wednesday.
On Sunday evening at the community briefing in Florence, Poncin was asked why the Lolo Peak Fire was not put out immediately when it was discovered. He said that on July 15 eleven different fires started on the Lolo National Forest. He said initial attacks were initiated and all were successful but one. He said it was in a very remote area that was difficult to get to and dangerous due to the amount of dead timber. He said half the standing timber in the area was dead and there were no safety zones. The next day winds came up and the fire out ran the helicopter that was dropping buckets on it.
The fire had burned an estimated 37,284 acres by Monday morning and was considered 31% contained. According to fire information officer Mike Cole, the actual fire perimeter is about 100 miles long. About 1,122 people are currently working on the fire and the current cost of the efforts is estimated at $30.7 million.
Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said, “Nobody is happier than me to pull those residential road blocks and let people back into their homes.” But, he warned, conditions can change quickly and there is still a lot of fire out there. Strong winds can change everything in a few hours. He warned those moving back into their homes to remain vigilant and be ready to leave if things turn around.
In other fire news, firefighters were working on five new lightning-caused wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest over the weekend. Thanks to quick initial attack by fire crews, all of the fires are small (.10 acre or less). All are burning in remote locations and there are no structures threatened and no closures at this time. Four fires are located on the southern end of the forest on the West Fork Ranger District and one is in the Sapphire Mountains on the Stevensville Ranger District. See below for additional fire and resource information.
All of the fires are currently staffed and containment was expected on all fires by last Friday.
As of Friday, there were 15 firefighters and two helicopters assigned to the blazes which are being actively suppressed, under a full suppression strategy. The helicopters were assisting with bucket work to help control and suppress the fires.
Lightning from Thursday night’s storm was heaviest on the southern end of the forest and in the Stevensville area. Fire crews were continuing to look for more fires due to the amount of strikes and hot and dry conditions. Rain totals varied across the forest with Spot Mountain on the West Fork District receiving the most rain, ½ inch. Lookout Mountain near Painted Rocks Lake received .29 inches and Bear Cone Lookout received only a trace.
The National Weather Service is calling for more hot and dry weather in the region. Temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s are expected this week, increasing smoke in the valley from area fires likely reducing visibility. For the latest air quality information visit http://svc.mt.gov/deq/todaysair/.
For more information about fires burning in Montana and across the country visit http://inciweb.nwcg.gov.
Firefighters have responded to and extinguished 55 wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest this summer.