Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The U.S. Forest Service may label the Colt Fire as “uncontained,” but fire crews have made headway toward containment during the past two days of cooler weather.

During a public meeting in Condon on Wednesday night, members of the Forest Service Fire Incident Management Team 1 were able to provide some good news about the Colt Fire, although they emphasize that the fire season has just begun so the fire could burn until fall.

“We’ve been showing zero percent containment for a while now. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that we’re not aggressively taking action and working hard on that fire,” said Incident Commander Brent Olson.

As of Wednesday, the Colt Fire had burned an estimated 4,400 acres, but it had slowed Tuesday after a cold front passed through the region on Monday night bringing cooler temperatures. That gave crews an opportunity to conduct prescribed burning Wednesday along the eastern edge of the fire at Colt Lake Road - Forest Service 646 - and mop up where the fire had managed to jump across the road on Monday.

This work will help to stymie the fire should it start moving east. The winds normally blow out of the northwest, so the fire will tend to move to the southeast. Olson said the team’s first priority is protecting the Highway 83 corridor and the houses along it.

Along the north edge of the fire, Operations Chief Andy Huntsberger said crews have also been making progress, clearing a line along the Beaver Creek Road - Forest Service Road 906. The area north of the fire has had some timber sales and old burns so access is easier, and the areas around the smaller lakes are pretty wet so they’re not burning much.

Huntsberger said the fire could move farther north, but it probably wouldn’t move quickly. He didn’t think it posed a threat to the residents of Lindbergh Lake in the near future.

It’s the southern edge, particularly the area to the southwest, which is the most challenging for firefighters. Huntsberger said there’s a lot of dead and downed subalpine fir and lodgepole pine, so it’s a tough spot to work. The Incident Team decided against sending firefighters there, choosing to focus their efforts on the eastern edge of the fire where success was more likely.

Since it’s still relatively early in the fire season, plenty of men and equipment have been sent to the fire. But as the season drags on, fewer resources will be available, so the crews needed to make headway where they could, Huntsberger said.

The fire is still north of the West Fork of the Clearwater River. Although firebrands have been causing spotting near the river, the resulting flames have been backing down the slopes and running into old roads.

A map of current evacuation orders and warnings. Areas in red are under mandatory evacuation while those in yellow remain under evacuation warnings.
A map of current evacuation orders and warnings. Areas in red are under evacuation orders while those in yellow remain under evacuation warnings.

Fire behaviorist Dave Grayhouse said the recent heat and drought has dried out all the standing dead timber, setting the stage for the fire to make another run as the high heat returns next week. One of the measurements Grayhouse calculates is the energy release component of the forest, which reflects the controllability of a fire.

“Right now, the energy release component is sitting above the 90th percentile. What that means is, of all the observations I’ve looked at, only 10% of the time has that number been higher. What that tells me is it’s super dry - everything is ready to burn,” Grayhouse said. “The good news is the brush fuels - the snowberry, the huckleberry - that’s still moist enough where it’s not going to burn. But it’s still early in the season - over the next few weeks, that’s going to dry out.”

Meteorologist Ryan Leach said the mountains have been staying hotter as cool air moves down to the valley at night and humidity is low. This condition is known as a thermal belt and that’s what caused the fire to blow up in the first place. Now, as the heat returns this weekend, the thermal belts will also return, making fires more volatile.

“This is a full suppression action. Our intent is to keep this fire as small as possible. But it’s going to be a slow go. As the fire behaviorist described, (the southwest corner) is not friendly country for firefighters. There’s a lot of fuel out there, and for us to get through it is going to take some time,” Olson said.

For that reason, nearby campgrounds have been cleared and evacuation warnings have been issued. The Flathead National Forest will institute Stage 1 Fire Restrictions on Saturday, which prohibits campfires on the forest and no smoking unless within a vehicle or building.

Olson said analysts would try to predict when to alert people that they may need to evacuate to give them time to prepare. Bob Parcell of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office explained how residents would get a yellow evacuation warning as the fire neared, and then a red evacuation order if conditions worsened. If the fire really starts to run, deputies will be out driving the roads with sirens on to warn people to get out.

Olson said if the fire does reach Highway 83, fire crews will do structure triage so they don’t waste resources trying to protect homes that are more likely to burn. Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier reminded residents that it’s not too late to try to create a defensible space around their homes by cleaning needles out of gutters, clearing debris out of corners and removing trees within 30 feet of the house.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at