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051810 maclay flat fire
A Missoula Rural Fire District firefighter responds to a wildland fire just off the parking lot at Maclay Flat at Blue Mountain Recreation Area Monday afternoon. Construction nearby sparked the grass fire, which spread into the trees. Cottonwoods damaged in the fire are being felled to prevent accidents. Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

The third Monday in May looked a whole lot like the heart of Montana's wildfire season.

Crews from Missoula Rural Fire along with state and federal firefighters spent the day hustling to put the lid on a 20-acre wildfire west of Lolo, shut down a quarter-acre fire at Maclay Flat and stop a controlled burn that got away from a private property owner in upper Miller Creek.

All of the fires were human caused.

"If fire season is starting this early, it's going to be a long season," said Clare Delaney, a fire information officer for the Lolo National Forest.

The biggest fire, burning in Sleeman Creek west of Lolo, started as an intentionally ignited debris pile in a homeowner's backyard on Sunday, but became unmanageable and blew up in the afternoon winds.

Fought through the night by a multi-agency team of firefighters, the fire commanded the attention of 30 firefighters on Monday afternoon, including three engines and one water tender.

They had the blaze 75 percent contained, Delaney said. Located in a steep drainage filled with dry grasses, ponderosa pines and rolling debris, the fire had moved west to the ridgeline overlooking Blue Mountain.

Crews worked throughout the night to build hand line on both the north and south flanks of the fire, and were able to secure the eastern flank, Delaney said.

Burnout operations took place on Monday to protect firefighters from rolling materials.

Although the fire was moving away from homes in the drainage, crews were at the ready to protect the two homes closest to the fire.


Far up Miller Creek, a burning brush pile created by a homeowner ignited nearby dry grasses and quickly became an 1.5-acre concern early Monday afternoon, said Bill Martinsen, Missoula Rural Fire battalion chief. Several engines raced to the blaze, including crews from the Montana Department of Natural Resources.

By early evening the fire, which was burning in a steep, grassy draw, had been controlled, and the threat to any homes had passed.

At the same time, over at Maclay Flat along the Bitterroot River, a private contractor hired to erect fencing with metal posts sparked a blaze near the fishing access.

Although the contractor was prepared for such an emergency - with a 500-gallon tank of water and a fire extinguisher - his two-person team was no match against dry grasses and wind, said Paul Finlay, Missoula Rural Fire deputy chief.

"I think it's something everybody needs to pay attention to. This is very early to see active fire behavior like that and like the kind we saw with Sleeman Creek," Finlay said. "When the wind picked up, it didn't take very long for the fire to move.

"It's a wake-up call for the potential fire season we are going into. It's a very active beginning for us."

Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or by e-mail at


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