Grant Creek fire shows what may be ahead

A legal burn on private land that escaped and lit up Grant Creek on Saturday, was nothing more than a cold, black streak across 15 acres Sunday.

By evening, the two dozen firefighters working the burned ground up Colorado Gulch, soaking hot spots and hauling water around the fire's perimeter, had reduced the flames to memory and stored them away as a reminder of more to come if moisture is sparse and people aren't careful in the coming months.

"Yes, this was a serious fire in the sense it could have threatened homes," said Jess Mickelson, battalion chief for the Missoula Rural Fire Department. "But nobody was hurt, no houses were damaged. There was not a significant loss - to some degree it was a habitat improvement because it cleared out debris for grass to grow back."

What began as a simple cleanup project for landowner Judy Barker, became an unexpected blaze that found room to run northwest onto public land and up a steep grassy slope marked with brush, fallen snags and standing timber.

After first checking the burn permit hot line, then seeing for herself that the weather was cool - it had rained in the morning and there was moisture on the ground - Barker, who had finished the bulk of her spring burning weeks before, raked up the remaining needles and duff around her house to burn them at about 9:30 a.m.

By 1:30 p.m. the modest pine needle pile, which had burned down to the size of a dinner plate and appeared to be out, came to life with the encouragement of stiff afternoon winds.

"I thought the fire was out," said Barker, who raked through the pile several times, checking for smoke and embers. "But I didn't put my hand into it to check."

As 33 mph gusts sparked the quiet pile to life, the Colorado Gulch neighborhood sprang into action and worked to corral the fire with garden hoses and shovels.

They were joined by a rapid response of Missoula rural and city firefighters, and state and federal firefighters, who remained to finish the job Sunday.

"It's really the result of a very dry year coming off of last year's dry conditions," Mickelson said. "Even with the moisture we've had this spring, conditions are unpredictable - but the real crux of it was the wind event. This was definitely a weather-driven fire."

Mickelson said he encourages people to make a thorough check of weather reports and to contact the National Weather Service before burning.

"We all need to use every weather tool we have available to make a wise decision about burning," he said, adding that the National Weather Service forecast Saturday afternoon's winds.

Because the fire burned onto public lands and state firefighters were called to duty, Barker will likely be billed for the state's efforts, said Todd Klemann, Missoula unit supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Klemann said he has not yet added up the costs, but past legal burns that jumped from private to public lands and were about the same size cost the landowner about $5,000.

Legal burning is expected to end June 1, Mickelson said.

"We feel pretty comfortable down on the valley floor," he said. "But if we don't get any moisture soon, we'll be in trouble."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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