A fog of smoke hung over parking meters in downtown Missoula early Monday morning as fire crews hastened to gain control of Mount Sentinel's smoldering north slope.
The fire ignited at about 1:30 a.m. and, while still under investigation, was probably human caused, said Linda McFaddan, an information officer with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
By 7 a.m. the blaze had mushroomed to about 20 acres, feeding on heavy timber along Sentinel's steep, rocky slopes just south of Interstate 90, between Missoula and Bonner.
By midafternoon, however, the fire's vigor had waned substantially, and firefighters were optimistic that they'd have the blaze buttoned up before dark.
And while concern mounted in the late afternoon, a time when winds in the Missoula Valley are notoriously unpredictable, all signs pointed to a successful mop-up.
"The word is, they already have it knocked down with water," McFaddan said. "They're in the process of digging line and laying hose, but if Mother Nature cooperates and all goes well, this one is looking good."
The same Type 2 Incident Management Team in charge of the Packer Gulch fire is also managing the new blaze, which has been dubbed "Kim Williams No. 2," and on Monday dispatched two 20-person crews to stamp it out. In addition, two Type 6 fire engines, one helicopter and the Idaho Panhandle Hotshots were dispatched to the fire.
"The team got on it fast," said Brandon Smith, an information officer with the Incident Management Team. "They've got water hose lines around the entire perimeter of the fire. As long as the weather cooperates with us, we hope to begin mop-up by late afternoon."
Throughout the entire day, a helicopter dropped buckets of Clark Fork River water on the fire, assisting ground crews who labored against the heat and the steep, craggy terrain.
Despite Monday's apparent success, officials are maintaining a constant vigilance over the unrelenting fire hazards, and have repeatedly stressed the importance of obeying Stage 1 fire restrictions, which went into effect over the weekend and apply to campfires and smoking.
Campfires and charcoal briquettes are allowed only in developed recreation sites or campgrounds and are limited to metal or concrete fire rings. Smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings or designated smoking areas that are 3 feet in diameter and cleared of vegetation, like a paved surface.
Those restrictions will remain in place until Missoula County's fire danger abates. However, due to near record-setting temperatures over the weekend, and more heat forecasted this week, officials have raised the fire danger level from very high to extreme.
Access to Mount Sentinel is temporarily closed, including the Kim Williams Trail and the "M" Trail.
Tom Steenberg, Missoula's fire chief, said the fire's behavior was still too unpredictable to allow full access to Mount Sentinel.
"We're mainly worried about fire behavior in the event that afternoon winds kick up," Steenberg said.
Over the weekend, Bitterroot National Forest and rural fire department firefighters spotted and extinguished three unattended campfires at Black Bear campground, located about 16 miles up Skalkaho Highway.
Florence-Carlton Rural Fire Department and forest firefighters worked until late Monday afternoon on the quarter-acre Lower Sweeney Fire, located about 4 miles southwest of Florence. That fire, called in early Monday morning, was the result of an unattended campfire built outside of a fire ring.
The Bass Creek Trail spot fire, just one-tenth of an acre, was also caused by a careless camper.
"Although all of the fires from the weekend are out, we were lucky there wasn't any wind," said Public Affairs Officer Dixie Dies. "The fire up Sweeney Creek was reported by someone seeing smoke early in the morning; that is how dry it is. The fire didn't wait for the heat of the day to pick it up. Please, please, make sure campfires are dead-out, and that a campfire is only built in a developed recreation site."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com