The Blue Mountain Lookout will shine in the sunlight on Thursday, when fire crews finish wrapping it in reflective foil.
Just one drainage away from the dangerous edge of the Lolo Creek Complex fire, the lookout and Blue Mountain Observatory got special protection this week as firefighters struggled to keep the flames south of the Woodman Saddle.
That sharp-sloped canyon has few roads and fewer escape routes, making it hard for ground crews or heavy equipment to halt the fire’s progress. Only a couple days of calm winds and high humidity kept the 17-square-mile fire’s growth to under 10 acres in recent days.
“The terrain we’re looking at here is pretty calm compared to what they’re working in,” fire information officer David Schmitt said at the base of the lookout. “But once the fire starts moving, there’s a lot of stuff that’s at risk.”
To the southwest, a 500-kilovolt BPA powerline threaded through a deep canyon before turning west to cross the Clark Fork River over Highway 93. Less than two miles beyond the wires, helicopters ferried water and retardant in and out of the canyon folds. Less than two miles the other – downwind – direction sat hundreds of homes in Lolo, along Highway 93, O’Brien Creek and southwest Missoula.
“If we don’t stop it there (in Woodman Saddle), the roads around Blue Mountain and Graves Creek are the next opportunity,” Schmitt said. When the fire threatened the upper ends of Sleeman Gulch Road, just west of Lolo, fire managers started scouting the Blue Mountain area to learn what their fall-back position offered.
On Monday, workers brought boxes of climbing gear to begin wrapping the lookout itself. The building sits on a 41-foot tower, and every bit of wood needed to be wrapped in foil to keep it safe from flames.
That required some acrobatic dangling off stairways and cross-beams as the workers taped and stapled the foil in place. Marty Lorentz of Hamilton said he was pleased to be protecting his own backyard.
“We started this yesterday about noon,” Lorentz said Tuesday. “We should have it done today, or surely by noon tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, a crew of Fires Are Us private contractors from Eureka set up a network of sprinklers around the hilltop. They drew water from a 2,300-gallon inflatable reservoir filled by Missoula Fire Department tanker trucks.
A little way down the hill, Florence sawyer Cody Thomas was sharpening his chainsaw after dropping several subalpine fir trees around the Blue Mountain Observatory.
“We were over in Woodman Saddle yesterday,” Thomas said. “It was a lot worse – real steep and rocky.”
The observatory posed a tricky protection problem. Its walls were cinderblock, and relatively fireproof. But its domed roof was thin metal. The crews decided to insulate the telescope inside, but otherwise depend on creating defensible space around the building.
What they couldn’t defend against was the menace of flying insects. Only two stings were reported on Tuesday morning, but wasps and yellowjackets were constantly getting into people’s hair and clothing folds.
“The bugs up here are phenomenal,” Missoula District Ranger Paul Matter said. “I’ve never been in an area with so many yellowjackets.”
Matter was inspecting the work on his district’s popular landmark, which may have been featured in the old smokejumper movie “Red Skies Over Montana.” The building was originally installed on Davis Point, across the Bitterroot Valley in the Sapphire Mountains in 1957. In 1966, Forest Service workers moved it to Blue Mountain, 11 miles and 3,260 feet from the Bitterroot River bottom.
It was occupied every summer until this year, when a maintenance project was supposed to get underway. Its balcony usually provides views of Lolo Peak and the pinnacles of the Bitterroot Range to the south, as well as the whole Missoula Valley to the north. On Tuesday, all that was obscured by smoke from the Lolo Creek Complex.