The scary fire that broke out Monday evening in upper Grant Creek behaved itself nicely overnight, and a mandatory evacuation order for 25 homes was lifted shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The Colorado Gulch fire, though not deemed controlled, was quiet Tuesday afternoon with barely a wisp of smoke to be seen.
Red slurry from air drops in the first few hours of the fire lay on the slope, across Grant Creek Road and into an open hay field.
A Missoula County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said a fifth-wheeler serving as a residence was destroyed, as were several outbuildings and some vehicles.
“The silver lining,” said Brenda Bassett, “is that there were no injuries.”
The fire broke out shortly before 6:30 p.m., mere hours after the weekly Monday meeting of the Missoula County Fire Protective Association, at which the various firefighting, health and emergency services opted to keep Missoula’s fire danger at “very high” but agreed things were pretty quiet around the valley.
Many of the same agencies – Missoula city and rural fire departments, the Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation – were staffing the fire lines and aircraft in the evening, as strong winds pushed the flames and fire eastward up the hill toward the Rattlesnake Recreation Area.
Much of Missoula saw the smoke, and firefighters were poised to pounce. A Type 3 helicopter, heavy air tankers and three single-engine air tankers led the impressive aerial attack after the neighborhood was evacuated and traffic was blocked on Grant Creek Road. By Tuesday three 20-man crews were on the ground.
“We call it dog-piling,” said Jordan Koppen, public information officer for the DNRC. “The response time was pretty good with this one. They got on it, got a plan and initiated it very quickly.”
The point of origin appeared to be less than 100 yards above Grant Creek Road and north of Colorado Gulch Road.
“What we tried to do was flank the fire and box it in,” Koppen said. “The incident commander wanted to go up both sides of the flanks, and then cut it off at the head of the fire so it’s not going to go anywhere.”
The strategy worked, even though firefighters knew shifting wind conditions could easily have dashed it.
The fire that broke out at 6:22 p.m. was deemed contained but not controlled at 2:22 a.m. Tuesday. By coincidence the announcement that the evacuation order was lifted was sent to media outlets and others at 4:22 p.m.
The latest Colorado Gulch fire happened two years and a couple of weeks after another fire broke out in Colorado Gulch at about 4 p.m. on a Monday. Flames then were pushed eastward up the hill by shifting winds, and the fire went down with the sun. By the next day it was quiet again, with little damage done to houses or a power line that runs through the area.
Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and a contractor from Missoula Rural Fire were on the scene of this year’s Colorado Gulch fire but hadn’t announced a cause. Bassett said a downed power line may be to blame.
Koppen was thankful that minimal damage and no casualties were counted, but he called it “a huge wake-up call for Missoula.”
“There aren’t enough people taking this seriously. When you live out in the woods you have a responsibility and you need to act on it, and we haven’t gotten enough people to have acted on it.
“We’re trying to tell them, they need defensible space around their homes, they need to clear out all the fuels on the different zones from their homes. They need to get rid of the woodpiles under their decks, they need to remove the fuels under their decks, and the pine needles in their gutters and on their roofs.”
He pointed from a fire camp set up at the Grant Creek Ranch to nearby hillside houses tucked into the trees.
“See what I’m talking about? Pine needles all over that roof. All it takes is one ember to get into that pine bed on the house and the whole thing goes up in flames.”
The DNRC is constantly urging people who live in the woods to contact their local fire departments.
“We will come out and do a free evaluation and help you out as much as we possibly can,” Koppen said.
Bierney Creek fire: An evacuation plan remains in the works for 75 to 100 homes west of Lakeside after fire broke out in the Bierney Creek area Monday afternoon. Ali Ulwelling of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said Tuesday no mandatory evacuations had been called yet.
“We’re just suggesting folks be prepared, probably in the 'set' stage” of the ready-set-go evacuation plan, Ulwelling said.
The fire was within easy view of this Flathead County town on the northwest shore of Flathead Lake. It remained at 80 acres Tuesday evening, with 70 percent of the perimeter lined. But due to the high number of spot fires, the interior still contained a large amount of unburned fuel and overall containment was considered low.
It was reported Monday at around 4 p.m. and spread rapidly in high winds and low relative humidity.
Initial attack engines and heavy air tankers and helicopters worked into Monday evening to slow the fire with retardant and water drops. With the help of lighter winds and lower temperatures, the fire was held through the night with minimal spread.
An infrared flight Monday night showed numerous spot fires outside the main fire. Those spots were to be among the primary targets on Tuesday.
Ulwelling said the Bierney Creek fire was transitioned from initial to extended attack on Tuesday, when the local Type 3 Incident Management team took over. The 20-person Type 1 Flathead Interagency Hotshot crew and a 20-person Type 2 crew were on the scene Tuesday morning, with an additional 20-person crew on order.
Evacuation notifications were being coordinated through the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department.
Copper King fire: The Type 1 team under Greg Poncin that took over management of Copper King fire east of Thompson Falls on Tuesday morning consisted of about 70 people in addition to the ground and engine forces. They absorbed the Type 3 team that had been in place for the past two weeks, including incident commander Scott Schrenk.
After several map revisions, the fire finally measured out at 21,045 acres – a quadrupling in size between Sunday and Monday. It’s more than twice the size of the 23-day old Roaring Lion fire near Hamilton, Montana’s second-largest active fire.
Weather conditions were much better for firefighting Tuesday, as the temperatures and wind speeds lowered while humidity rose. After tearing through some very steep and heavily timbered country, the front of the fire was moving toward more open, roaded country near the northwest corner of the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Plains.
“What it burned (Monday) was dense timber,” said Thompson Falls resident Elizabeth Riffle. “I expect there to be smoke on this hillside until the snow flies.”