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.