GREAT FALLS - Some outfitters operating in the Bob Marshall Wilderness are worried about the government's decision to let a forest fire burn there, calling it a risky proposition this time of year.
The Hazard Lake fire 35 miles west of Choteau has burned more than 750 acres and is being managed as a "wildland use" fire, meaning authorities are allowing it to burn, at least for now, i the backcountry.
Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Muqoz said that after years of suppressing fire, it is important to let this blaze, which was caused by lightning, burn naturally.
"When it comes to lodgepole pine and spruce we need some disturbance in there," he said. "And the only opportunity to do that is with fire."
The burn also reduces the odds of a catastrophic fire burning outside the wilderness in the future, he said.
But some outfitters, who saw an October 2001 fire that was allowed to burn come very close to several outfitter camps, say they fear a repeat of that.
Lee Carlbom, owner of the Sun Canyon Lodge, had to turn away four hunters this week because of the fire. The fire is in an area used as a campsite, and the fire prevented the area from being used, he said.
"That's $12,000 lost right there," he said. "And with the dry conditions, why they would let any fire go this time of year, I don't know."
Carlbom also is concerned the fire is burning in some of the last heavy timber left in the area. He said the land is important to grizzlies and wolves. He also is concerned that if the fire is allowed to continue growing, it will spread into grasslands and affect elk wintering grounds.
Muqoz said crews are actively managing the fire to make sure it does not take off.
He also noted that three other fires started in the wilderness area by the same lightning storm were extinguished because they of concern about their proximity to private land, recreational homes or resorts.
"We looked at those fires and determined they were too close to take a risk," Muqoz said.
On Wednesday, an aerial tanker dropped three loads of retardant in a grassy area on the east side of the North Fork of the Sun where the Hazard Lake fire is burning.
Eight smokejumpers and additional firefighters also have installed sprinkler systems at the K Bar L resort five miles southeast of the fire. Sprinkler systems are in place to protect a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks building at Reclamation Flats. The Cabin Creek administrative cabin on the east side of the blaze also is wrapped in reflective material in case the fire grows.
Dick Klick, owner of the K Bar L, said the fire will have some economic impact on his business. But he said he accepts the decision to allow the fire to burn.