HAMILTON - Fierce winds blowing through the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains Thursday afternoon forced fire managers to ground aircraft and pull crews from the lines at the Alder Creek fire southeast of Stevensville.

Despite the weather, the fire stayed mostly within its 615-acre perimeter, according to Boyd Hartwig, spokesman for the Lolo National Forest.

"There have been no major hard runs, so the fire hasn't really picked up and taken off," Hartwig said.

Some spot fires pushed out from the fire's southeast edge and crews were working on several that showed some torching activity, Hartwig said.

Fire crews on the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests woke Thursday to an ominous fire weather forecast calling for high temperatures, low humidity, strong winds and possible thunderstorms.

The red-flag weather briefing accompanied news that fire crews working Alder Creek would try to connect fire line on the northern perimiter to an old burned area from 2000.

Hartwig said that line was about 60 percent in place by the time the five crews on the scene were pulled.

The decision to pull firefighters and ground aircraft came as officials grew increasingly concerned about safety in the windy conditions, Hartwig said.

"We pulled the firefighters off the lines because you can have snags blowing over, and you don't want crews up there in those kinds of conditions," he added.

Three helicopters and one air tanker had been dropping water and fire retardant on the fire.

For the most part, the forecast held true.

By late morning, winds were gusting to more than 30 mph at the higher elevations in the southern Sapphire Range. By afternoon, those winds arrived farther north.

Temperatures in the region pushed into the 80s and 90s, though there was some hope that the winds and slightly cooler afternoon temperatures arriving with a cold front might dampen any thunderstorm activity.

Early Thursday evening, however, a storm had ignited at least one new fire in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Hamilton.

The National Weather Service was calling for the red-flag warning to continue through midnight Friday, with strong winds and humidity levels continuing to be around 10 percent.

The Alder Creek fire was called in Sunday morning by a fire lookout at the Willow Mountain lookout station east of Corvallis.

By that afternoon, fire managers had sent in a dozen smokejumpers and ordered helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

The fire, which straddles the Bitterroot and Lolo forests, is burning in heavy fuels, though crews used a burnout Wednesday to reduce some of that material.

It is 10 percent contained.

Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or at sjannotta@ravallirepublic.com.


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