LOLO – Firefighters took their stand along Sleeman Gulch on Wednesday and dared the Lolo Creek Complex to cross the line.
Two evenings of explosive growth had moved the fire’s eastern front within sight of the information kiosk at the intersection of U.S. Highways 93 and 12.
Wednesday didn’t deliver the same winds as Monday and Tuesday, when the fire grew from 80 to 8,598 acres. But it didn’t leave the firefighters with much room to spare.
“The fire grew 2 1/2 miles in four to six hours on Tuesday,” operations section chief Mark Goeller said Wednesday. “We don’t have 2 1/2 miles to Sleeman Gulch. We have less than that. We can anticipate that it could burn into Sleeman today.”
So the fire planners have set a trigger point where if the flame front gets close enough to Sleeman Gulch, ground crews will start burning out grass, brush and trees along the road to deprive the main fire of fuel and momentum as it approaches. They have also started digging fire lines on the ridges east of Sleeman Gulch Road. Beyond that, the homes of the western edge of Lolo stand next in danger.
“We’ve also concentrated our retardant drops along that eastern edge, keeping it cool,” Goeller said. “It will help us buy some time and slow the spread to the east.”
The potential threat to Lolo prompted Missoula County sheriff’s deputies and city police officers to go door-to-door distributing pre-evacuation notices to hundreds of homes west of Highway 93, from the West View neighborhood above Highway 12 all the way north to Deadman Gulch Road south of Missoula.
“We’re just asking people to be prepared to move,” Sheriff’s Capt. Brad Giffin said. “So when we give the warning to go, you can grab your stuff and get out.”
More urgent evacuation notices had already gone to residents from Mill Creek to Sleeman Gulch. Task forces of city and rural firefighters and their trucks were standing by all along the highway corridor, to defend homes and buildings.
“Our resources have been short from the beginning and we’ve seen some extremely radical fire behavior,” Missoula Rural Fire Chief Bill Colwell said. “The face we’re this far through without any serious injuries is really a blessing.”
Fire departments as far as Whitefish and the southern Bitterroot sent engine teams to bolster the structure protection force. They’ve tied in with a complex web of state, federal, military and volunteer efforts to fight the fire.
That includes a pair of Montana National Guard Black Hawk helicopters that become available on Thursday and Monday for staggered 15-day deployments. The choppers will handle initial attack on future fires in the Lolo area to keep them from expanding the Lolo Creek Complex, according to Maj. Tim Crowe. At least six other small fires are staffed in the Missoula Ranger District.
By Wednesday afternoon, three heavy air tankers, four single-engine air tankers and numerous helicopters were working overhead. A large contingent of bulldozers, skidgines and other heavy equipment was reconnecting the area’s extensive logging road network as fire lines and access routes. Fire spokesman Tom Kempton said the portion of the fire south of Highway 12 had its own strategy.
“On the southwest area, they’re bringing hand and dozer lines to anchor on the retardant drops,” Kempton said. “ The fire is not moving through the retardant much, especially on the far end of Elk Meadows Road.”
Even so, crews spent much of Wednesday burning out dry fuels along the highway to forestall any spot blazes from jumping the road. Kempton said the goal was to keep the two lobes of the fire as separate as possible.
“In 15 years on the Lolo National Forest, I’ve seen a lot of fire,” Lolo Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin said. “The cooperation has been incredible on this one. We do a lot of scenario training, and this would be a perfect ‘this would never really happen’ exercise.”
That cooperation may be tested in the next few days. The National Weather Service has a fire weather watch for thunderstorms moving across the Lolo area on Thursday night through Friday afternoon. Those fronts could bring scattered lightning and gusty winds.
“It’s similar to the Jocko Lakes fire of 2007, where you have a large fire moving directly toward a community,” said Tony Liane of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “It’s a scary thought, but I’ve got a lot of faith in this team. They’ve been around the block.”