HAMILTON – As the firefighting effort begins to wind down on the Roaring Lion fire southwest of Hamilton, people are starting to get an idea of what the flames have left behind.
Near the popular trailhead where the fire is suspected to have started, there isn’t a whole lot of green left to see.
“People are going to be pretty shocked when they finally get to go up to the trailhead,” said Forest Service Public Information Officer Mike Cole. “It was pretty much a crown fire that went through there. On both sides of the canyon, it did get up into the trees. The south side of the canyon is just black snags.”
Cole and several others with the Forest Service ventured up to the trailhead for the first time since the fire started on July 31.
From the trailhead’s parking lot, Cole said the forest was black as far up the mountain as he could see.
“We were lucky there weren’t a lot of people up the canyon that day,” he said. “That was one hot and fast moving fire that moved through there. It’s the type of fire that would trap animals. Even animals wouldn’t be able to get out of the way fast enough in that kind of fire.”
What needles on the trees that didn’t burn were frozen in the direction of the high winds that must have blown down through the canyon that first night.
“You could tell which direction the fire was coming from by looking at the needles,” Cole said. “All of the needles were pointed east. It’s something called needle freeze. It’s really unique … the fire was burning through so fast and so hot and it flash-froze the needles.”
The only thing that survived on the trailhead sign was the metal that framed it.
Even with the recent rain, Cole said there was a still quite a lot of smoke coming from tree trunks and downed logs in the area.
“That little bit of rain that we got was nice,” he said. “It’s slowed things down for a few days, but by this weekend it will be hot again and we’ll see more fire activity occur.”
When firefighters do their mop-up work, they focus their efforts on the first 200 feet in from a fire line. Beyond that, Cole said people are going to notice that there’s quite of bit of material still smoldering.
“When we were at the trailhead today, around us 360 degrees, we could see stumps burning and other material smoking,” he said. “It’s going to take a season-ending event to put this out. I think people may have a false sense of hope right now. They might think that this fire is out. While that would be nice, it’s not true.”
A Hotshot crew has spent the past couple of nights camped out high on the southwestern edge of the fire in order to get an early start each day extending the fire line higher up the mountain.
“They want to hang that fire far up on the side of the mountain so it can’t come back down and get into the stands of heavy timber in Camas Creek,” Cole said. “We don’t want to allow it to blow out into the valley again.”
On Wednesday, a feller buncher was used to take out trees to help widen fire lines on the southwestern edge of the fire. The trees were limbed and the logs hauled out by trucks on FS Road 496 down to the Lost Horse Road.
“We have some logging truck traffic coming out of there that people need to be aware of,” Cole said.
On Wednesday, the management of the fire was turned over by the Northern Region Type 1 Incident Management Team to a smaller Type 3 team as the resources tied to fighting the fire continue to be released.
The new incident commander is Drew Daily, who has served as operations manager with the larger Type 1 team.
“This is the best-case scenario,” Cole said. “He knows the whole fire and all of its moving parts. That should make the transition really smooth.”
There are 518 people assigned to the fire. Cole said those numbers will continue to drop over the next few days.
The fire received a little bit of rain Tuesday.
Over the past four days, a portable weather station just south of the fire recorded a half-inch of precipitation.
“That doesn’t mean the fire got a half-inch,” Cole said. “It did get a good shot of moisture yesterday (Tuesday). We a little bit of a chance for a thunderstorm today and then the system will be moving out of here. Then we’ll be back to typical August weather.”
Farther south, firefighters have made good headway around the eight-acre Lost Trail fire.
“They are doing mop-up right now,” said Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay. “They haven’t called it contained, but they have de-mobed a lot of resources from it. It’s looking pretty good at this point.”
Firefighters, local law enforcement and Forest Services made a video to offer their thanks to the community through this trying time. It can be found at facebook.com/DiscoverBitterrootNF.