Sending in firefighters to try to stop the Lolo Peak fire while it was still relatively small this past summer would have been “almost like a suicide mission” according to Jordan Koppen, a fire information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
That’s because the fire started in such remote, heavily forested and steep terrain that there would have been no way to escape quickly if the fire acted erratically due to wind or other factors, he said. He added that more aerial drops of retardant wouldn't have stopped the blaze because the thick tree canopy in that area would have stopped the retardant from hitting the undergrowth below.
“So the early days, when it comes to conditions like that, it’s super-steep and rocky terrain,” he said on Friday. “And there’s no escape routes or safe zones. So if you take crew members up in a helicopter and drop them off on Lolo Peak and they go into this fire and the fire blows up, where are they going to go? We can’t afford to put people’s lives at risk just to try and save these homes if they’re down at the bottom. It’s just not worth human lives.”
Koppen said there were also hundreds of snags (dead standing trees in danger of falling over) per acre in the area. A falling snag killed 29-year-old firefighter Brent Witham on Aug. 2 as he worked the Lolo Peak fire.
“We didn’t want to put anybody in danger because we were tapped out on the resources as it was because we were having so many fires in the area, including the Rice Ridge and the Sapphire Complex, so you can imagine all the resources that were out there,” Koppen said. “There was a lot of active fire behavior.”
Koppen spoke to a large group as part of the 2017 Timber Tour, hosted by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s Forest Resource Committee.
The Lolo Peak fire started on July 15 due to lightning and eventually burned nearly 54,000 acres southwest of Missoula. In the wake of the fire, as usual during severe fire seasons, there was an outcry from many citizens asking why the fire wasn’t stopped early on before it got so big, choked the surrounding valleys with smoke, forced the evacuations of thousands of people and contributed to the burning of two homes.
On Thursday, Koppen defended fire managers’ decisions with regard to how the fire was dealt with.
“It started up in really forested land,” Koppen said. “It was really hard for fire agencies or the Forest Service to even get up in that area. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize to people. We really didn’t want to put people up there because there’s no escape routes or safety zones. We already had one fatality up there and that was after the fact.
"But it was one of those situations where we had a lot of other fire ignitions because of a lightning storm that came through," he continued. "And how are we going to effectively put a fire out when it’s out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no escape routes and to keep those fires safe?”
Resources were already stretched thin, he said, and fire managers have to make tough decisions.
“It’s a challenge, those decisions that we have to make to keep everyone safe,” he said. “That’s our priority is bringing everyone home to their families every night. That’s what we’re trying to do with fire suppression is protect these homes.”
Even a much heavier aerial attack, with more bucket drops of retardants, wouldn’t have stopped the blaze from spreading, according to Koppen.
“That’s just it, it’s so thick up there, if you drop retardant or anything up there, it’s not going to go down to the ground,” he explained. “It’s going to keep up in the canopy because it’s so overgrown. That’s one of those things. We’ve been suppressing those fires for over 100 years, and when we let it go like that, and keep suppressing those fires, it’s going to get thicker and thicker.”
Koppen said fire managers went through and talked to as many property owners they could reach to give them advice on how to protect their property.
“Most people took that advice, but some didn’t,” Koppen said.
Byron Bonnie with the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development Area spoke of the benefits of thinning work done around homes. He said that people need to treat at least a 100-foot ring around their property, otherwise it will probably all be for naught.
"A hundred feet is crucial,” he said. “And it’s not that far.”
Bonnie said that in the aftermath of the Roaring Lion Fire that burned south of Hamilton in 2016, he and other fire managers studied properties that had been thinned. He said many homes were saved because property owners had thinned their property, but eight homes still burned within the thinned area. That’s because burning embers probably rained down on the houses and found something to ignite.
“It could have been brush underneath a deck, or it could have been a broom propped up against cedar siding,” he said. “It could have been a door mat.”
Despite exceptions to the rule, Bonnie said that property owners in the wildland urban interface would be wise to have their property thinned as a precaution. There are even federal grants available to pay for the work.