By Michael Howell
Smoke filled the Bitterroot valley last weekend, turning both the sun and moon into red orbs at certain times of the day and night. The smoke is coming from all over, including surrounding states and even Canada. According to the Forest Service’s inciweb internet site, on Monday there were nine active fires on the Lolo National Forest alone. One of the major culprits locally sits at the north end of the valley and is slowly approaching Highway 12 and also threatens the Mill Creek area.
The community is mourning the loss of Vista Grande, California Hotshot Brent Witham, 29, who died last Wednesday while fighting the Lolo Peak Fire. A memorial procession was held Monday in Missoula to honor Witham. Witham is the second firefighter to die this year while fighting fires. Trenton Johnson, 19, of Missoula, was killed on July 19 while fighting a Seeley Lake-area fire.
The Lolo Peak Fire was started by lightning on July 15 and has since grown (as of Monday) to 7,292 acres. The fire was first reported by helicopter pilot Mark Johnson and his co-pilot Scotty. They spotted a small column of smoke in the area as they were returning to the Stevensville Airport from the Burdette Fire. The fire began in the wilderness area but has moved out of it on the northeast flank. Most of the ground efforts have been aimed at establishing miles of fire line with bulldozers where residential buildings are found along both Highway 12 and around the corner as far as Bass Creek along Highway 93. The bulk of the firefighting on the burn site has been done by helicopter with the aim being to prevent the spread of the fire into neighboring drainages and across ridge lines on the south.
On Sunday helicopters dropped retardant along the fire’s western edge to prevent fire spread into the next drainage. Crews tested pumps, hoses and sprinklers to ensure they will be ready to protect homes and hold the fire line if needed.
Heavy smoke over the weekend did serve to dampen the fire’s activity a bit. However, fire managers warned on Monday that warmer and drier conditions are forecast and with the potential lifting of the smoke, the Lolo Peak Fire could become more active. That activity is expected on the fire’s northern edge, mainly in Cedar Creek and the South Fork of Lolo Creek.
On Monday, Incident Commander Noel Livingston told firefighters at the 6 a.m. briefing, “We are going to start managing how this fire comes down hill.” He said they were going to let the fire grow naturally in some areas and continue to check it, using helicopters and retardant in areas of concern. Another part of the strategy involves setting fires in some unburned areas when conditions are appropriate in order to lessen the chances for high intensity fire behavior later. These man-made fires will be used when conditions favor low intensity burns. These burns lessen overall intensity by robbing approaching fire of fuel.
Crews also plan on extending a primary containment line a short distance into Idaho in order to protect parts of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. Lolo Peak firefighters are ready to assist the local forest and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with extinguishing new fire starts around and within the Lolo Peak area of operations.
No new evacuations are in effect. An Evacuation Warning remains in place for the south side of Highway 12 from Fort Fizzle, west to the intersection with the Elk Meadows road, including Mill Creek. This is not an order to evacuate, only a warning so citizens can prepare should evacuations become necessary.
Highway 12 remains open. Motorists are asked to not stop along the road to view fire activity because it creates a traffic hazard.
Stage II Fire Restrictions are in effect for Missoula and Ravalli Counties and across the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests. A temporary flight restriction remains in place surrounding the fire. This restriction includes “drones” or unmanned aerial vehicles. If drones are detected, air operations will stop.
Area closures in effect for the Lolo Peak Fire include the following roads and trails as well as those encompassed by the area closure intersecting with open roads and trails: Elk Meadow Road (NFSR #451) from Junction US Hwy 12 to the Clearwater National Forest Boundary, West Fork Butte Road (NFSR #37) from the West Fork Butte Lookout to the intersection with the Elk Meadow Road (NFSR #451), Mormon Peak Road (NFSR #612), South Fork Lolo Creek Road (NFSR #2160), Small Creek Road (NFSR #4292), West Fork Butte Trail (NFST #320), Mill Creek Trail (NFST #1310), Sweeney Trail (NFST #393), and Bass Creek Trail (NFST #4).
The Bitterroot National Forest issued an amendment on August 1 for the Lolo Peak Fire that now includes Bass Creek NFSR #1136, beginning at the junction of NFSR#1316 and the Charles Waters Campground and through section 32, T.10N, R20W. The Charles Waters Campground remains open.
For specific road, trail and area closure information visit the Inciweb website.