Fire Season 2013: Crews Make Progress on Lolo Wildfires

By Beacon Staff

LOLO — Fire crews bolstered a barrier meant to prevent a pair of wildfires from moving east toward houses and heavy timber outside the town of Lolo as light rain and cooler conditions helped efforts to contain the blazes.

The Lolo Creek Complex of fires was 30 percent contained Friday morning after growing slightly, to more than 15 square miles, fire information officer Phil Sammon said.

Crews building fire lines with bulldozers and shovels were working to connect the lines to keep the fire from moving closer to Sleeman Gulch and homes to the east outside the southwestern Montana town, fire officials said.

Forecasts of gusting winds up to 50 mph failed to materialize.

“Weather has been our friend today,” Sammon said.

Evacuation orders remained in place for about 250 homes, and there was no word on when it might be safe for residents to return, Sammon said. A public meeting was planned for Friday night.

Some firefighting teams stood ready in case burning debris from the hillsides rolled too near one of the homes below. Others doused hot spots along U.S. Highway 12, which remained closed to Lolo Pass.

Mop-up teams dug at tree roots and sprayed down smoldering logs.

South of Red Lodge, the Rock Creek Fire near U.S. Highway 212 has seen slow growth over two days, but was still threatening an estimated 127 structures, fire officials said.

The fire was 10 percent contained by Friday morning after burning about 900 acres.

A series of thunderstorms whipped up the flames in the afternoon. But Forest Service spokesman Jeff Gildehaus said the blaze grew by only 100 to 200 acres and was prevented from spilling over a ridgeline separating it from the West Fork of Rock Creek.

All evacuation orders have been lifted, and traffic was being allowed to pass at 35 mph through the fire zone.

Other large wildfires in the state include the four-fire Miner Paradise Complex south of Livingston, which has burned nearly 18 square miles combined and was 5 percent contained.

About 50 large fires are burning nationwide.

Beastly Fire Disrupts Idaho Vacation Heaven
SUN VALLEY, Idaho (AP) — For rockers Huey Lewis and the News, smoke from the massive Sun Valley, Idaho, wildfire known as “the Beast” had band members who famously worried about the heart of rock and roll worrying about their lungs.

They canceled their show, as did the novelists, poets and journalists who convene in this vacation region each summer for a writer’s convention. Meanwhile, squadrons of private aircraft whisked the affluent off to locales with cleaner air.

With its mountain backdrop, Sun Valley is normally a playground for the rich, the famous, for super-fit pursuers of outdoor sports or the Big Wood River’s feisty brook trout. To many, it’s heaven. But “the Beast” has caused disruptions in the sun-basking, fun-loving lifestyle, and the economy.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Brad Wood, who helps run a shop that rents bikes at the posh Sun Valley Lodge. Wood said he’s sent four employees home until business picks up: On Thursday, only five of the 350 bikes they rent were out.

The blaze is among about 50 large fires burning nationwide.

Wildfire near Yosemite Surges, Prompts Evacuations
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park nearly quadrupled in size Thursday, prompting officers to warn residents in a gated community to evacuate their homes and leading scores of tourists to leave the area during peak season.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the huge fire, one of several blazes burning in or near the nation’s national parks and one of 50 major uncontained fires burning across the western U.S.

As flames approached an area of Pine Mountain Lake with 268 homes in the afternoon, deputies went door-to-door to deliver the news and to urge people to leave, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Scott Johnson said.

The evacuations are not mandatory, although Johnson stressed that the fire, smoke and the potential for power outages pose imminent threats.

“We aren’t going to drag you out of our house, but when we are standing in front of you telling you it’s an advisory, it’s time to go,” he said.

Fire officials said the blaze, which started Saturday, had grown to more than 99 square miles and was only 1 percent contained Thursday, down from 5 percent a day earlier. Two homes and seven outbuildings have been destroyed.

While the park remains open, the blaze has caused the closure of a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side, devastating areas that live off of park-fueled tourism.

Officials also have advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds. More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about 5 miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

“Usually during summer, it’s swamped with tourists, you can’t find parking downtown,” said Christina Wilkinson, who runs Groveland’s social media pages and lives in Pine Mountain Lake. “Now, the streets are empty. All we see is firefighters, emergency personnel and fire trucks.”

Though Wilkinson said she and her husband are staying put — for now — many area businesses have closed and people who had vacation rental homes are cancelling plans, local business owners said.

“This fire, it’s killing our financial picture,” said Corinna Loh, whose family owns the still-open Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland. “This is our high season and it has gone to nothing, we’re really hurting.”

Loh said most of her employees have left town. And the family’s Spinning Wheel Ranch, where they rent cabins to tourists, has also been evacuated because it’s directly in the line of fire. Two outbuildings have burned at the ranch, Loh said, and she still has no word whether the house and cabins survived.

“We’re all just standing on eggshells, waiting,” Loh said.

The governor’s emergency declaration finding “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property” frees up funds and firefighting resources and helps Tuolumne County in seeking federal disaster relief.

Park officials said the fire has not impacted the park itself, which can still be accessed via state Routes 140 and 41 from the west, as well as State Route 120 from the east side.

Yosemite Valley is clear of smoke, all accommodations and attractions are open, and campgrounds are full, said park spokesman Scott Gediman. During summer weekdays, the park gets up to 15,000 visitors.

“The fire is totally outside the park,” Gediman said. “The park’s very busy, people are here. There’s no reason that they should not come.”

The Yosemite County Tourism Bureau based in Mariposa has been helping tourists displaced by the fire to find new accommodations in other park-area towns, said director Terry Selk.

In Yellowstone National Park, five wildfires have been burned about 18 square miles of mostly remote areas on the 25th anniversary of the infamous 1988 fires that burned more than 1,200 square miles inside Yellowstone, or more than a third of the park.

The vast areas that burned that year remain obvious to anybody who drives through. The trees in the burn areas are a lot shorter.

This summer’s fires haven’t been anywhere near that disruptive. The biggest fire in Yellowstone, one that has burned about 12 square miles in the Hayden Valley area, for a time Tuesday closed the road that follows the Yellowstone River between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village.

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