Fire Season 2013: Reinforcements Arrive As Lolo Fire Threat Rises

By Beacon Staff

Update, 12 a.m., Aug. 22

Reinforcements arrived in western Montana as dry thunderstorms and high wind gusts forecast for Thursday made it tougher to predict which way a pair of wildfires threatening 1,200 homes would turn.

Since topping the nation’s priority list Wednesday, the number of people assigned to the two fires west of the town of Lolo has jumped from 260 to 508, and air and engine support has also increased. That includes Montana National Guard helicopter crews and troops assigned to relieve local authorities at roadblocks.

“When you get bumped up to that level, you get a lot more priority in resources,” said fire information officer Mike Cole.

The National Interagency Fire Center’s priority list is based on factors such as a fire’s condition, the existing resources, weather and the threat to properties, among other factors, he said.

Cooperative weather and increased air support helped slow the Lolo Creek Complex’s spread on Wednesday. That allowed crews to conduct burnout operations around the most threatened homes and begin digging a fire line from U.S. Highway 12 up the slope to the fire.

The fires had burned 9,500 acres, or nearly 15 square miles, by Thursday morning.

The wildfire is under unified command between Greg Poncin’s Type I Incident Management Team and Brent Christopherson with Missoula Rural Fire District.

The Lolo Creek Complex fire burns west of Lolo. | Courtesy photo

Poncin is a longtime incident commander based in Kalispell. The Beacon wrote a story about Poncin and other local Type I incident commanders earlier this summer.

Five homes were burned on Monday, but none have been lost since then. The edge of the fire was about a mile away from the nearest homes on Sleeman Gulch.

Highway 12, a commercial route leading from Montana to Idaho, remained closed to traffic.

Many of the estimated 650 people who attended a public information meeting Wednesday night wanted to know when the highway would reopen, but fire officials could not give them a definitive answer.

Most homes in the area have been evacuated, though some residents have decided to stay. They are allowed to do so if there are no children, elderly or disabled people in the home, Cole said.

The temporary break in the weather may be over, with dry thunderstorms and erratic winds gusting up to 50 mph forecast to enter the area. Lightning strikes could start more fires in the dry conditions, though some precipitation was expected to move in late in the day and aid firefighters by increasing humidity levels.

“Weather’s an amazing factor. You never know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Cole said.

In southern Montana, five miles south of Red Lodge, a national Type 2 incident management team was taking over firefighting operations for the Rock Creek Fire, which was the No. 2 priority fire in the nation Wednesday.

The fire had burned 800 acres by Thursday morning near U.S. Highway 212, forcing the closure of the popular route from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.

Travelers to Yellowstone were being redirected to the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, the Billings Gazette reported.

Northeastern winds kept the fire away from many residences on the east side of the highway and lining the canyon’s bottom on Wednesday, the newspaper reported.

South of Livingston, a complex of fires burning in and around the Gallatin National Forest had burned a combined 17 square miles and 5 percent contained by Thursday morning.

Pre-evacuation notices have been issued to homeowners in the Tom Miner Basin area, and fire officials have requested additional resources for the 368 people already assigned to the fires.

Montana Fires Top National Priority List, Guard Mobilized

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday ordered two Army National Guard helicopter teams and 18 checkpoint teams to join firefighting efforts as two fires burning in the state topped the nation’s priority list.

Western Montana’s Lolo Creek Fire Complex, which has burned more than 13 square miles, and the 600-acre Rock Creek fire south of Red Lodge were the No. 1 and No. 2 wildfires on the National Interagency Fire Center’s priority list, center officials said Wednesday.

Both were threatening homes and other structures, with the Lolo fires already destroying five residences and threatening another 1,200.

The 260 firefighters and other personnel assigned to the fires were focused primarily on protecting those structures west of the town of Lolo. Fire engine crews set up hoses to protect several homes as flames pushed down the hillsides, the Missoulian reported.

The Rock Creek fire, which ignited Tuesday, has led to evacuations and the closure of a portion of U.S. Highway 212, a popular route over the Beartooth Pass from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.

Wind gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph were forecast for the afternoon, threatening to spread the blaze to the east side of the highway, where there are hundreds of recreational residences, a campground and a church, the Billings Gazette reported.

“The concern is that if it gets going in any direction … we’ve got a whole new ballgame,” fire information officer Jeff Gildehaus said.

Bullock, who signed an emergency order Monday allowing the use of National Guard resources to aid firefighting efforts, was sending about 110 guardsmen to the Lolo fires.

They will be placed on active duty for up to 15 days. Replacements will be rotated in if needed, according to Guard officials.

The two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter teams will be stationed at the Montana Department of Natural Resources state land office in Missoula to provide initial wildfire attacks under that agency’s direction.

The 18 checkpoint teams were to report to their locations at 8 a.m. Thursday to support local authorities at the perimeters established around the fires.

There are 2,400 total National Guard members available to respond, Guard officials said.

A complex of fires burning in and near the Gallatin National Forest was considered the No. 5 priority wildfire, fire center officials said.

The Miner Paradise Complex has burned a combined 11,000 acres, or 17 square miles south of Emigrant and along the Gallatin Crest. The four fires were about 5 percent contained Wednesday, fire officials said.

Incident Team Deputy Cmdr. John Thompson said those fires are going to continue to grow, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.

“Our weather guy isn’t showing us any relief, except a chance of thunderstorms. We don’t like thunderstorms,” he said.

Lightning-packed thunderstorms that don’t bring much rain have the potential of starting more fires in the dry conditions.

Yosemite-Area Wildfire Balloons in Size Overnight

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park — one of 50 major brush blazes burning across the western U.S. — more than tripled in size overnight and still threatens about 2,500 homes, hotels and camp buildings.

Fire officials said the blaze burning in remote, steep terrain had grown to more than 84 square miles and was only 2 percent contained on Thursday, down from 5 percent a day earlier.

The fire has destroyed two homes and seven outbuildings and led to the voluntary evacuation of the gated summer community of Pine Mountain Lake, which has a population of 2,800.

Several organized camps and at least two campgrounds have been evacuated since the fire broke out Saturday.

The fire also caused the closure of a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one main path into Yosemite on the west side. The park remains open and can be accessed via state Routes 140 and 41 and State Route 120 from the east side.

“This is typically a very busy time for us until Labor Day, so it’s definitely affecting business not having the traffic come through to Yosemite,” said Britney Sorsdahl, a manager at the Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland, a community of about 600 about 5 miles from the fire.

The board of supervisors in Tuolumne County held an emergency meeting and voted for a resolution asking Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency and free funds for the firefight.

The resolution said the fire was “directly threatening” communities and “beyond our capabilities,” according to the Modesto Bee.

The fire was among 50 major uncontained wildfires burning throughout the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, including in California, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than 19,000 firefighters were fighting the fires.

But the U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s top wildfire-fighting agency, said Wednesday that it is running out of money to fight wildfires and is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap. The agency said it had spent $967 million so far this year and was down to $50 million — typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.

There have been more than 32,000 fires this year that have burned more than 5,300 square miles.

On Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center listed two fires in Montana as the nation’s number one priority. They include a wildfire burning west of Missoula that has surpassed 13 square miles, destroyed five homes, closed U.S. Highway 12 and led to multiple evacuations. The Lolo Fire Complex, which was zero percent contained, also destroyed an unknown number of outbuildings and vehicles.

At least 19 other notable fires were burning across the state, leading Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a state of emergency, which allows the use of National Guard resources ranging from personnel to helicopters.

In Oregon, a fire in the Columbia Gorge about 10 miles southwest of The Dalles grew to 13 square miles, burning a fourth home. The fire was 15 percent contained. Strong winds continued to fan the blaze, pushing it into the Mount Hood National Forest.

Firefighters in southwestern Oregon braced for a return of lightning storms that started a series of fires last month that continue to burn in rugged timberlands.

In Idaho, progress was reported in the fight against the nearly 169-square-mile Beaver Creek fire, which forced the evacuation of 1,250 homes in the resort area of Ketchum and Sun Valley. That fire was 47 percent contained, authorities said.

In Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, officials reopened a 7-mile section of road closed briefly by a wildfire. As of Wednesday, the Alum Fire had burned about 12 square miles and was spreading slowly, leading park officials to make preliminary evacuation plans for a community on the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.