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Officials say fire an example of early danger

This time of year, north-facing slopes should be fairly fireproof.

And green things ought not burn.

But a prescribed fire-turned-wildfire did indeed burn Friday on north-facing slopes above the Flathead River between Perma and Paradise - and, in fact, resisted the best efforts of 100 firefighters and three helicopters.

And a fire incident commander warned Memorial Day weekend campers not to be fooled by the "flush of green," because the pine litter and duff below is very dry.

"We are seeing drying in the larger fuels that's more typical of late July," said Rick Carlson, an incident commander for the Plains Ranger District. "That's a real indicator of drought. The fire danger's just creeping up and up every day."

Carlson, in fact, requested a regional fire management team on Friday, after the Wilson Creek fire took hold in a decaying stand of mistletoe-infected Douglas fir on cliffs and scree fields outside Perma.

The fire grew from the remains of a month-old prescribed burn that hadn't produced smoke - and was thought to be out - for two weeks. Firefighters worked the blaze hard on Thursday, but could not keep up. By Friday, the fire covered 150 acres "and was even burning in the scree," Carlson said.

The regional fire team will take over suppression efforts on Saturday. "It looks like we are doing pretty well and that we may not need any more people," he said. "But we want to put out absolutely everything. We want all the scattered hot spots to be out."

"The terrain is a problem," Carlson said. "Access is very difficult, and there's no way to leave crews out on it at night. There's hardly any soil up there, it's so rocky. But there are enough needles in the scree that it's burning, too. The footing is really treacherous."

Carlson said the larger fuels - those greater than 6 inches in diameter - were summer-dry. The Plains Ranger District, in fact, cut off its prescribed burning program two weeks ago because of the lack of moisture.

"This one caught us," he said. "It hadn't put up smoke for several weeks. But we got an easterly wind and that managed to kick up some stuff that hadn't been active at all. And then the high temperatures and low humidities made things even worse."

"It's a little deceiving out there, with all the green growth," Carlson warned. "People ought to be careful with campfires; there's drought below the green. You can't get away with anything right now."

Bob Gilman, the Forest Service's regional deputy fire director, said drier-than-normal is the norm all across western Montana and northern Idaho.

"People should take extra precautions," he said. "Everyone needs to be careful with how they use fire."

"We're just not seeing much moisture anywhere," said Jack Kirkendall, the Bitterroot National Forest's fire management officer. "The larger diameter fuels didn't soak up a significant amount of moisture over the late fall and winter. And all the downed woody material, the punky stuff, is just as dry. There doesn't even seem to be much moisture in the soil."

Kirkendall said valley bottoms throughout western Montana "never really received the precipitation we would normally see in the winter" and conditions are relatively dry. "People need to be aware of that, in terms of doing their land-management activities," he said.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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