Firefighters completed a defensive line around the Lolo Creek Complex on Wednesday and spent Thursday testing its strength.
“If we can get through a possible wind event on Friday, we’ll be feeling pretty good,” fire spokesman David Schmitt said. Some still-active areas in the Woodman Creek drainage north of Woodman School mean the fire can only be called 75 percent contained. Nevertheless, what was briefly the top-priority fire in the nation is now heading toward the mop-up phase.
Schmitt said the 757-person crew was focusing on repairing bulldozer lines, fixing fences and restoring road closures that were used to contain the fire. Another team has begun building a plan for rehabilitating some of the forest and grasslands burned in the fire’s interior.
The 10,902-acre burn area has shown no growth since Tuesday. Some members of a Montana National Guard detachment have been released as evacuation watches around Lolo have been lifted.
More thunderstorms are expected Thursday night and Friday, meaning higher gusts of wind could increase the fire’s activity. Parts of Beaverhead and Madison counties are under red-flag warning Friday afternoon as fire conditions there become dangerous.
The Gold Pan fire southwest of Darby grew to 39,549 acres on Wednesday, although a good dose of rain slowed the blaze’s activity. The lightning-caused fire has been burning since July 16 mainly in Idaho wilderness, but the eastern flank is burning into the Little Blue Joint drainage in Montana, where helicopter bucket drops are being utilized to stop spot fires and slow the spread.
Crews have nearly completed all contingency lines on the east side of the fire, and crews will continue to work along the Magruder Road to keep travel routes clear. The nearby Nez Peak fire was moderately active, growing to 1,206 acres.
A lightning-caused wildfire was discovered burning in the Little Sleeping Child Creek drainage on the Darby Ranger District on Wednesday evening, and firefighters raced to control it throughout the night before it could blow up in the surrounding dry timber.
The Little Sleeping Child fire, a holdover from Monday’s storm system, was discovered burning on private land at about 5 p.m. and moved onto U.S. Forest Service land very quickly, according to Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay.
“It ripped pretty good with that afternoon wind and raced to 15 acres pretty quickly,” Mckay said. “Our initial attack crew from Darby and the Hamilton Fire Department responded right away and people were out there all night to try to get a line around it. We also had two helicopters on it. They did great work, and we were very fortunate that they moved so fast because it could have grown very quickly. It was burning in grass with some trees around it, and it burned right up that slope. They felt really good about getting that thing knocked down.”
Meanwhile, the Clifford fire on the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness grew to seven acres as of Thursday afternoon, and a Hotshot crew was being flown in to that blaze on Thursday. It should have 35 people assigned by Friday.
The Eagle fire, burning near Spot Mountain in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, was controlled on Wednesday and is now unstaffed. There are still three people working on the one-tenth-acre fire near Burnt Lake in the Sapphire Mountains, but McKay said it should be controlled by Thursday evening.