U.S. Highway 12 fire closure hampers travelers, commerce

2013-08-22T05:45:00Z 2013-12-11T19:22:45Z U.S. Highway 12 fire closure hampers travelers, commerce missoulian.com

Over the past few days, wildfires have closed two of Montana’s most scenic highways, causing inconvenient reroutes for travelers and putting a damper on commerce into and out of the state.

Because of the 8,600-acre Lolo Creek Complex wildfire, U.S. Highway 12 is closed indefinitely from Lolo Hot Springs in Montana to the Idaho border.

U.S. Highway 212 over Beartooth Pass is also closed four miles south of Red Lodge because of a fire, and northbound traffic has been stopped at Wyoming Highway 296, said Brandi Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Transportation.

“Whenever we have road closures, it is a huge impact,” Hamilton said. “Our goal is to move goods and services and people as safely as possible, but things change quickly during wildfire season.”

Highway 12 is a particularly challenging closure.

Not only is the corridor home to hundreds of residences and ranches, but it is also a vital transportation route for Montana and Idaho commerce and travel, with about 1,000 vehicles traveling over Lolo Pass each day.

“There are some key corridors in Idaho, and when they are blocked, that leaves you with few alternatives,” said Mel Coulter, a spokesperson for the Idaho Transportation Department.

“U.S. Highway 12 is one of the key corridors and the only link between Lewiston at the Washington border and the Montana state line.

“With a closure that close to Lolo Pass, it makes an extremely long journey around the closure.”

Rerouting takes travelers hundreds of miles out of the way, north to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to reach Interstate 90, or south to Stanley and Salmon to reach U.S. Highway 93 at Lost Trail Pass.


As most of the Missoula area waits for the Lolo Creek Complex to be quelled, transportation officials are anxiously awaiting the moment the highway can be reopened.

“We want to do everything we can to not impede with firefighting efforts,” Coulter said. “The road closure is prudent to allow those people to do their job and it is prudent to protect the traveling public so they don’t get into areas where they might also be in danger.”

“Of course we would like the road to reopen, but we encourage drivers to be patient – and to let the firefighting experts do what they do best,” he said. “But the highway is a critical commercial route, and that is critical to commerce in Idaho.”

On the Montana side, a reroute through a U.S. Forest Service road was temporarily tried, and then MDT planned to do a pilot car through the area Tuesday, Hamilton said.

“That seemed liked a viable option, but the fire blew up again and within 10 minutes we had to completely change the plan,” she said. “It’s difficult, especially the longer you have a closure in place. It’s difficult to manage and to communicate a consistent message to the public.”

Transportation officials are on the ground at the fires, meeting with incident commanders and keeping abreast of the changes and the possibilities for roads to reopen, Hamilton said.

“We are in the real heart of wildfire season,” she said.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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(12) Comments

  1. GaryTinkSanders
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    GaryTinkSanders - August 25, 2013 6:05 pm
    I am not disagreeing with you, they are being overly cautious.
  2. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 23, 2013 5:10 am
    Gary, I appreciate your input but take a look at the well thought out closure map associated with the fires:
    Note how the Fish Creek road is nowhere near the closure area, in fact it is not even shown on the map because it is so far west of the fire.. You mentioned how the fire had moved 2.5 miles per day when it was really moving. Gives you several days to close Fish Creek Road before the fire would get there.
  3. GaryTinkSanders
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    GaryTinkSanders - August 22, 2013 11:25 pm
    @ Objective, not to keep beating a dead horse "but" the main fish creek road is 10 miles away but many roads and trails lead off the main road to trail heads and all the way over to Petty Creek and these are the areas of concern, all Fish Creek does is allow access to other areas that could endanger people. The question that I asked you is if you have been up close and personal with a wildland fire? I will admit it seems to be excessively cautious but remember that 19 wildland fire fighters that knew what they were doing got caught in a bad situation when winds shifted and now they are dead. The practice for the remainder of the year will be excessive caution.
  4. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 22, 2013 9:33 pm
    Gary, it is TEN miles west of the fire. So if ten miles is not safe MTSierra, shouldn't they evacuate all of Lolo which is 3-4 miles downwind of the leading edge of the fire? And yes, I've spent plenty of time in the mountains.
  5. GaryTinkSanders
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    GaryTinkSanders - August 22, 2013 6:22 pm
    Sure it would be closed at that time but what about people who could be in there hiking, biking or camping believing the fire would never make a run on them. Now you have to have emergency personnel tied up traveling all the roads to make sure there is no people in danger. Have you ever worked wildland fires? If so what did you do? Have you ever been close up and personal with a wildland fire?
  6. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 22, 2013 4:28 pm
    Fish Creek road would be uied to access highway 12 WEST of Lolo Hot Springs. The fire is not going to run 10 miles to the west in an instant. If it moved in that direction, Fish Creek road could be closed.
  7. MTSierra
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    MTSierra - August 22, 2013 9:37 am
    Prevailing doesn't mean a guarantee. if you have spent anytime in the mountains you know that the wind doesn't just blow in one direction and will constantly swirl. You could easily get a switch in wind direction causing a spot fire a couple miles to the west, now your 10 miles is 8 in a matter of seconds.

    Just continue being the "expert" you are while you kick back in that recliner.
  8. GaryTinkSanders
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    GaryTinkSanders - August 22, 2013 8:46 am
    It wouldn't normally run 10 miles into prevailing winds but with a cold front coming in we have a counter clock wise rotation that will allow winds to come out of the east depending on where the cold front is centered and if it stalls. Fish Creek road has 3 primary points of access to Petty creek road, the officials do not want to get people off on side roads and have them jeopardize their own lives or firefighters trying to save them. The hwy 12 corridor where the fire crossed the road has not been freed of danger trees yet, some are still smoldering in the root system or burning inside, The power company is trying to restore power and repair lines, I am sure that Fire Sciences is studying the fire behavior and these issues need to be dealt with before traffic can resume safely. The average fire grow rate during the first two days of the run averaged approximately 2.5 miles per day, it could get worse as I witnessed the fire spotting about a 1/4 mile ahead of the flame front.
  9. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 22, 2013 7:04 am
    The fire is not going to run 10 miles to the west unexpectedly....into the prevailing wind direction.
  10. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 22, 2013 5:36 am
    I completely agree and posted the same sentiment yesterday. I was met with comments suggesting that I wasn't supporting the fire effort. Nothing could be further from the truth. The FS put out a press release saying that both roads had forest service roads off of them accessing the fire. A lie in the case of Fish Creek road. There is no fire between the Graves/Petty Creek and Fish Creek roads.
  11. montanamuralist
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    montanamuralist - August 21, 2013 11:03 pm
    The problem is that when the fire blows up it can move at a pretty unpredictable speed in the wind. I would rather they keep everything closed until they have this thing in hand which may take a couple weeks, especially with more lightening and storms forecast for later in the week. Fish Creek might be good without pilot cars but the problem is if the fire makes another run ( and you can bet they want it to run in a westerly direction...well big trouble. Just be patient...last thing we need is for something to happen on Fish Creek accidentally and with wind forecast for Thursday..who knows??
  12. meanders
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    meanders - August 21, 2013 8:37 pm
    The reroute for US 12 discussed in the article is the Fish Creek Road. It is an improved gravel road with a direct connection to I-90. The Fish Creek Road is about 10 miles west of the fire, which is generally moving north and east. The question needs to be asked: Why can't the Fish Creek Road be opened as an alternative? A vehicle length restriction would resolve the issue of oversize rigs trying to use the road. Pilot cars are a bad idea, due to the dust raised in a caravan on a gravel road. With all due respect, it appears that the USFS and MDT are applying a risk-averse strategy with regard to the reroute option. I understand why the Graves Creek Road is closed, due to its proximity to the fire and use by fire traffic.
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