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Fires finally fizzle, warnings lifted

By Michael Howell


According to Lolo Peak Fire Operation Section Chief Mike Granger, Mother Nature stepped up in the nick of time to quell the Lolo Peak Fire just as it had spotted out ahead of itself up the Sweeney Creek drainage and leapfrogged past Bass Lake into the upper Bass Creek drainage. The fire was setting itself up to make a run down both canyons and that may well have happened except for the significant amount of moisture that accompanied the front that rolled in last week.


The rain and snow in higher elevations dampened fires across the region and locally led to the lifting of all the evacuation warnings in the valley, including the upper East Fork, and along the highway next to the Lolo Peak Fire. Although a couple more weather fronts are expected to bring even more moisture to the area over the coming week, Sheriff Steve Holton cautioned residents in areas that have been under threat not to get too complacent. He said that if the predicted moisture didn’t arrive or was not significant, some of these fires could come to life again.


But on the whole, firefighting activities are winding down, and firefighting equipment is being back-hauled away from the fire lines which are being mopped up and patrolled along the western edge of the fire. A lot of restoration work is already under way on the north edge of the fire along Highway 12. Dozer lines are being repaired and re-graded and fire breaks are being seeded with grass.


As of Monday morning, the handline on Larry Creek was completed all the way to Sweeney Creek. But the latest precipitation stalled the fire before it reached those lines. The fire was determined to be 69% contained after having burned 55,753 acres.


Although not much fire activity is predicted due to colder temperatures and more moisture coming in, operations officer Brandon Cichowski said that smoke will probably be seen coming from the canyons for weeks or even months to come.


National Guard troops who have been doing work on the Lolo Peak Fire put in their last shift. According to Cichowski, they worked on the firelines with chain saws, did handline work and even some torching.


“Having them here has been a tremendous asset,” he said.


Doug Turman’s Type I Team was also transitioning out on Monday and being replaced by Mike Ulmus’ Type 2 Incident Management Team.


The Sapphire Complex Fires were also brought to a standstill by the weather at 43,733 acres and were considered 90% contained as of Monday morning.


A news release from the Bitterroot National Forest cautions that, although some of the higher elevations on the forest did receive wetting rains over the past week, many did not. Precipitation levels varied widely with the northern end, Stevensville Ranger District, receiving the highest amounts.


The Sawmill Creek weather station in the Sapphire Mountains east of Stevensville received .87 inches of rain in a 48-hour period last week, while Tepee Point Lookout east of Sula only received .16 inches.


“While the change in weather conditions slowed fire activity, it did not put the fires out,” Tod McKay with the Bitterroot National Forest said in a news release. Fire managers say it will take several more days of wetting rains or snow to increase the fuel moisture levels.


According to the National Weather Service in Missoula, this summer was the driest on record since 1929, with only one day of measurable rainfall dating all the way back to June 21st. This ties the record low rainfall ever during summer months – also set in 1929.


Snow levels on Monday were expected to drop from 8,500-foot elevations in the afternoon to 4,500-5,000 foot elevations by Tuesday morning. Two more storms are expected Wednesday and Friday with wet, cold and occasionally windy conditions.

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