Lolo Complex fires jump to 5,000 acres; public meeting tonight

2013-08-20T13:15:00Z 2013-09-20T18:03:36Z Lolo Complex fires jump to 5,000 acres; public meeting tonight missoulian.com

LOLO – In the still, smoky Tuesday morning air, it was hard to imagine the firestorm that hit Highway 12 the night before.

Evacuees mingled with summer travelers at the Lolo Super Stop gas station, seeking word when they might be allowed up the road through the Lolo Creek Complex of fires. Montana Highway Patrol officers were turning back all motorists except fire personnel about three miles west of Lolo.

Flames raced over almost 5,000 acres between Graves Creek Road and Woodman Elementary School in a wind-whipped catastrophe that destroyed at least four homes and several outbuildings on Monday afternoon. What started as a pair of small, lightning-caused initial attack blazes grew together in a matter of hours to become one of the top priority fires in the nation.

With the national fire preparedness level reaching Stage 5 for only the 10th time since 1990 on Aug. 19, more than 80 percent of the country’s Type I and Type II firefighting crews are active. The Lolo Creek Complex was initially set to get a Type II team, but that was upgraded to a Type I incident command after Monday’s rampage.

Fire officials also dropped plans to stage a fire camp at the Woodman School playfields after spot fires ignited barrow pits along Highway 12 just half a mile west of that location. On Tuesday morning, the incident command post had moved to the Lolo Community Center, while logistics experts were setting up a fire camp in a ranch field just north of Lolo.

Fire information officer Crystal Beckman said crews would be checking in at the north Lolo site, and probably continue to stage operations at Woodman.

*****

One of the most dramatic operations was a successful burnout of green timber and brush along Elk Meadows Road, on the fire’s southeastern flank. On Monday afternoon, the fire had built itself a column of heat and wind that essentially made it a weather force unto itself. The column would suck wind into its center and then push back out, moving the flames in waves of back-and-forth motion. Crews trying to defend homes in the area around Bear Creek Road and Camp Creek Road found no place safe to stand.

The defense instead moved east to Elk Meadows Road, where the handful of available ground crews assembled at midnight to blacken the forest ahead of the fire front. By that time, the fire had reached the ridgeline above the road, clearly visible to observers at Forest Road 451 less than a mile away.

But the 40 mph to 50 mph winds that had whipped the fire all afternoon started to fade with evening. Infrared aerial mapping late Monday night showed the fire stalled at the edge of Elk Meadows Road.

While the map showed the fire perimeter close along five miles of Highway 12, the north portion of the burn area appeared to be more spotty than initially assumed.

That was backed up by resident Beth Billingsley, whose husband Stan stayed with their house all Monday night on the north side of the highway. She said while at least three homes on the south side of the road were burned, it looked like none of the homes on the north side were seriously damaged.

“He stayed all night at the house,” Billingsley said of her husband. “He said it was pretty freaky. He didn’t sleep much.”

However, Highway 12 was reportedly blocked by downed power lines and snags for much of that section, and even evacuees weren’t being allowed beyond Lolo Creek address 17400, several miles short of the major burn zone.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the Montana Department of Transportation opened the Fish Creek Road from Interstate 90 (Fish Creek exit) to Highway 12 (at Mile Marker Six).

This will allow a linked access from Interstate 90 to Highway 12 for travel in both directions. Transportation and law enforcement officials are recommending travelers use this road only if required, due to the road’s unimproved condition.

Motorists are advised to stay on the main road (343).

A public meeting on fire conditions and evacuation measures is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Lolo Elementary School’s lower gym.

Weather conditions were expected to remain hot and windy on Tuesday, although the Lolo area didn’t warrant a red-flag warning.

Evacuees were being sheltered at Christ the King Church in Missoula, and Missoula County officials were arranging care for pets, large animals and other livestock at the fairgrounds. The number to call for Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services information is 258-4636.

Editor Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5250 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(9) Comments

  1. Objective observer
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    Objective observer - August 22, 2013 7:37 am
    Gary, thanks for the sphincter comment. Gave me a good laugh.
  2. GaryTinkSanders
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    GaryTinkSanders - August 20, 2013 9:29 pm
    Ol Johnny Dollar, I see you are wearing your sphincter as a necktie today, Why should you have emergency services living in town where you jam yourselves elbow to elbow, you couldn't take care of yourself if it weren't for those who live out of town that own cattle, timber or farmland and we are the same people that get burned out by forest fires. I think you need a baby wipe or goggles if you insist on making stupid comments.
  3. Teresa in Idaho
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    Teresa in Idaho - August 20, 2013 8:32 pm
    Johnny, I do believe that you qualify as a total jerk.
  4. Teresa in Idaho
    Report Abuse
    Teresa in Idaho - August 20, 2013 8:28 pm
    I drove through Lolo today, stopped for lunch and bought gas. The people are nice, hardworking people, the kind of folks that you would want as your neighbors. I am hoping and praying that everyone is safe. I just want to let the community know that you are in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.
  5. superiornative
    Report Abuse
    superiornative - August 20, 2013 4:15 pm
    Johnny: fire priority goes Life, Property, land. in that order. if they can save a meth lab without endangering lives it is what a firefighter will, do. when they are wondering if they are safe is when you see them running, and I recommend you do the same.
  6. Don't Care
    Report Abuse
    Don't Care - August 20, 2013 3:18 pm
    Cause that is what they get paid to do. Just like you get paid to flip hamburger patties at Mcdonalds.
  7. johnny Dollar
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    johnny Dollar - August 20, 2013 11:10 am
    As Tuesday began, she said firefighters will continue to focus on structure protection?????????????????????????????

    Why? Why endanger men/women to protect property of ignorant people who insist on building homes surrounded by fuel? This is insane........we do not owe anything to these foolish people.

    These are the same people who whine and complain when a wolf eats their dog.....or a bear tears up their chicken coop.

    Move to the valley .......it is safe there and better for the animals.
  8. MT_Mama
    Report Abuse
    MT_Mama - August 20, 2013 8:04 am
    Praying & hoping for everyone to stay safe -- residents, tourists, firefighters, pilots, law enforcement, other ground crews.
  9. Objective observer
    Report Abuse
    Objective observer - August 20, 2013 7:45 am
    Best of luck to the firefighters today. Big day today which may determine how bad this fire will get. Hope that they can do significant air operations.
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