Updated: Lolo Peak fire – ‘Trying to take control of the beast’

Posted: August 18, 2017

Source: Missoulian 

Image from: Kurt Wilson,Missoulian

Lolo Peak firefighters are “trying to take control of the beast out there” but warned Thursday night that they expect more extreme fire activity on Friday.

The Lolo Peak fire exploded to 15,090 acres Thursday, after making a four-mile run in the Mormon Creek area overnight. And Stuart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, warned that Friday “is going to be a big weather day.”

“We’re going to have a red flag warning, which means there will be extreme conditions that are right for large fire growth,” Turner said at a Thursday night meeting. “That’s why you’re seeing all of these activities and evacuations.”

In just a few hours Wednesday night, westerly winds moved the fire about four miles to the east on the ridge north of Carlton Lake and into the top of the Mormon Creek drainage, fire managers reported on InciWeb, the U.S. Forest Services’ Incident Information System.

That area remains a significant concern to fire managers.

“We’re trying to seal off the mouth of Lolo Creek,” Mark Goeller, the operations manager, told the crowd gathered Thursday evening at the Florence Baptist Church. “We saw, with the Roaring Lion fire last year and the Sawtooth fire, is that fire tends to want to come roaring out of the canyons and cause havoc on the valley floor.”

They’re trying to check the fire where they can in rocky terrain, and also have laid fire lines and hoses to try to stem its movement. In addition, on Thursday three Hotshot crews worked downhill building hand lines and burning out brush and understory along the northernmost and southernmost ski trails of the failed ski area west of Florence.

By midday, the uncontained fire edge had reached the highest elevations of the ski runs.

Using drip torches filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline, the Hotshots plan to bring the fire down to the primary containment line, which runs parallel to Highway 93. By burning out the lighter fuels below the trees, the crew plans to decrease the intensity of the fire as it approaches the containment line.

Hotshot crews plan to move the fire from McClain Creek on the southern edge, and from Mormon Creek on the northern edge, to meet in the middle.

From Drop Point 80 near McClain Creek Road, helicopter motors echoed out of the surrounding drainages and large tanker planes could be seen dropping retardant down Carlton Ridge. According to Public Information Officer Mike Martin, Lolo Peak is labeled a priority fire, which means more resources will be assigned to it.

A Type 2 initial attack crew from northwestern Alaska watched the Hotshots moving down the slope, ready to provide assistance at any moment. The supporting crews at drop points provide regular weather assessments to the Hotshots using field kits to measure temperature, wind speed, and relative humidity.

Fire managers said they’re also closely monitoring the Mill Creek Road area.

“We haven’t removed our focus and understand there’s still potential for that to become very active,” Goeller said.

Throughout the day Thursday, torching trees were visible from Highway 93, with fire behavior described as “very active due to the hot and dry weather. According to the Forest Service, people can expect to see “single tree and group torching, short uphill crown runs with spotting” between a half mile and a mile.

Despite the quick movement of the fire Wednesday, the mood around the incident command center and on the fire line was calm Thursday. Firefighters have had a month to create their strategy for fighting the Lolo Peak fire, and were ready to implement it.

Martin noted that for the past month, the fire had been in terrain too dangerous for firefighters.

“Down here, in the lighter fuels, is where we can catch this fire,” Martin said.

Back on Highway 93, the fire information trailer at the junction of Highway 93 and Highway 12 buzzed with activity all day long. Martin, said between 15 and 20 people at a time had been stopping at the stand since 7 a.m.

Many of the people stopping at the fire information stand were evacuated either Wednesday night or Thursday afternoon. John Peterson, one of the public information officers, assured wave after wave of people of the safety of their home and explained how firefighters are acting to control the fire.

Now that the fire is visible and established on Carlton Ridge, a new information stand will be set up in Florence at the community bank.

Greg Poncin, the incident commander, told the crowd at the gathering in Florence Thursday night that his team is happy to be back at the Lolo Peak fire after a two-week resting period. He noted that they put in 30 miles of primary containment lines before leaving, and that they want to come back to see this through.

“That’s how we are going to do this — together,” he said.


In other Montana fires:

The SpraguefFire grew to 200 acres Thursday. Sperry Chalet remains closed due to the fire, along with Gunsight Pass Trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass along with the Lincoln Lake trail.

Snyder Lake, Sperry, Lake Ellen Wilson and Lincoln Lake campgrounds all remain closed as well.

While other small fires are burning in Glacier National Park, no structures are under immediate threat.

Sunrise fire: The Sunrise fire is now at 22,309 acres, or nearly one-and-a-half times the size of Missoula.

Firing operations continue in Trout Creek, while crews are reducing brush piles around the area. Firefighters are continuing mop-up operations around the Quartz Creek and Verde Creek areas. Portable fire boxes are burning brush brought down off the line.

The Sunrise fire has caused evacuations in Upper and Lower Trout Creek areas, Quartz Creek, Cougar Meadows and Cougar Creek. All evacuations are Stage 3 and there are currently no Stage 2 Evacuations.

Blue Bay fire: The Blue Bay fire has burned approximately 200 acres and burned uphill late Wednesday evening.

Aircraft are currently working in the area while firefighters are building handlines around the fire. As the fire is near water, firefigthters are attempting to keep fire retardant away from waterways.

No homes are immediately threatened, though a Stage I evacuation notice has been in effect for the last five days.

Liberty fire: The evacuation warning for Placid Lake has been lifted, but Seeley Lake will continue suffering from heavy smoke, especially this evening as a “light and variable wind forecast” will create a strong inversion according to the wildfire air quality update.

The Liberty fire has burned 5,412 acres and is still at 90 percent containment. Fire crews are prepping for increased fire activity as a dry front moves into the area, while other crews continue patrolling for hotspots.

Crews have been working to stop retardant from affecting bull trout and west-slope cutthroat trout habitat.

Rice Ridge fire: Rice Ridge is now at 12,244 acres burned and is 10 percent contained.

Weather conditions have been warm and wind has been slightly gusty.

Crews will be working with strategic firing operations around Morrell Mountain while air crews drop retardant along the firing operation.

Meyers fire: The Meyers fire continues to burn, but Moose Lake’s evacuation level has been downgraded to yellow, allowing residents to move back in.

Firefighters and aerial resources are focusing on attacking new starts within the area, as firefighters continue to build indirect line around the fire.

Firefighting objectives “remain the same,” according to Inciweb, “and tactics will continue to reflect the most efficient and safest actions in fighting this fire.”

Sapphire Complex: No major changes in this complex of fires.

Missoulian reporter Thomas Plank contributed to this story.