Roaring Lion: Bitterroot fire crews defend structures, brace for windy weather

The Roaring Lion fire grew quickly southwest of Hamilton on Sunday evening, prompting widespread evacuations. A Type 1 incident management team was expected to take over management today and a fire camp will be established at Hamilton High School. (InciWeb photo)

By Martin Kidston

Updated at 2:30 p.m.

The National Weather Service in Missoula on Monday issued a red flag warning for Tuesday across portions of southwest Montana, including the Bitterroot Valley, where crews are battling the Roaring Lion fire.

Tuesday’s forecast calls for westerly winds up to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 mph possible in channeled and ridge-top terrain.

“We’ll be facing severe fire conditions tomorrow, with winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour,” said Tod Mckay, spokesman for the Bitterroot National Forest. “The weather over the next couple days isn’t in our favor.”

Fire officials have confirmed the loss of structures resulting from the Roaring Lion fire, though no additional information has been made available. The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department is working to inform the owners.

A public information meeting is set for tonight at 7 p.m. at the First Interstate Center at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds.

Update at 8:30 a.m.

A wind-swept fire west of Hamilton exploded in size Sunday night, prompting evacuations and leaving the Bitterroot National Forest scrambling for resources.

As of Monday morning, the Roaring Lion fire, burning five miles southwest of Hamilton, had grown to 3,505 acres. A Type 1 incident management team was expected to take command of the fire today.

The fire’s growth on Sunday evening was unlike anything Tod Mckay has seen in his seven years on the Bitterroot National Forest (link to latest fire information).

“From the moment we got the call we started response, and by the time we got there, the whole hill was engulfed,” said Mckay, spokesman for the Bitterroot. “We had crown fire and wind pushing up the face. Every time the helicopters went to do a bucket drop, the fire size had doubled.”

The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department issued evacuation orders Sunday to roughly 500 homes, including areas west of U.S. Highway 93 from Owings Creek to Hayes Creek. Nearly half of the evacuated structures were directly threatened by Sunday’s blow-up, McKay said.

“We’ve got crews on the ground today and we worked all last night putting out spot fires around structures and residences,” Mckay said. “There were structures involved yesterday. Several people lost some sheds and outbuildings. We don’t have a count yet.”

Mckay said the Red Cross has set up several shelters for evacuees at both the River Church and the First Baptist Church in Hamilton. A fire camp will be established today at Hamilton High School.

“The sheriff’s office did an amazing job going home to home and getting people out,” Mckay said. “The fire, from the initial time it was called in to being an inferno, was minutes. To evacuate hundreds of folks with livestock and trailers, and get them noticed and out safely without any serious injuries, is amazing.”

Fire officials plan an in-briefing at noon today as the Type 1 team takes command. Hot Shot crews on scene include Lewis and Clark, Helena and the Bitterroot. As many as five helicopters, one air tank and multiple engines are also working the fire.

“We’ve got pretty much every valley rural fire department that has any sort of engine or water tender involved,” Mckay said, adding that more resources have been ordered.

“They’ll bring lots of additional resources and expertise,” Mckay said of the Type 1 team. “They deal with the most complex fires, and this meets all the criteria. The first thing today is to get ready to brief them on what happened yesterday.”

Mckay said temperatures dropped overnight, allowing fire crews to douse spot fires around several structures. However, he said, the forecast calls for heavy winds later this week.

“This was not your typical attack for a wildland response – it was a completely different story,” Mckay said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at