LOLO – The smoke column over the Lolo Peak fire intensified on Monday as the blaze backed down the high mountain slope into dense stands of conifer mixed with downed timber, beginning a slow but steady burn that’s expected to last into September.
Worst case scenario? The fire crosses the ridge and makes a run with prevailing winds toward Highway 12.
Incident managers and officials with the Lolo National Forest briefed a packed room at Lolo Elementary School on Monday night over the fire’s progress and their contingency plans to keep the blaze from spreading to nearby highways and the populated areas perched at lower elevations.
Several area landowners have already opened their property to fire officials, enabling them to plan against any potential run or distant spotting. The fire has burned one-quarter to a half-mile per day.
“We feel we’ve come up with a very defensible, high-probability-of-success line along Highway 12,” said Brent Olsen, the fire’s operation’s chief. “We’re making a really big box, so if it fire does move, we have a defensible line.”
With that said, Olsen said, fire managers aren’t waiting for the fire to come to them, regardless of the steep and rocky terrain and the challenges of attacking a blaze that sparked above 8,000 feet.
On Monday, crews completed a firing operation along the divide between the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests. Using aerial ignition, their were able to seal off the fire’s southeastern flank and prevent it from making a down-slope run toward Highway 93, or casting long-range embers into populated areas.
“It had quite a bit of heat in it and it was positioning itself to make a run up towards the top of the ridge,” Olsen said. “We didn’t want that to happen because once it generates that kind of intensity, it has the potential to send long-range spots, and we didn’t want the fire to get established on the Bitterroot side of the divide and start moving toward highway 93.”
The fire is one of several burning on the Lolo National Forest, according to Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek. The Lolo Peak blaze is among 19 new fires to spark on the Lolo in the past 11 days, she said.
Several of those incidents have come close to communities, including a late start on Sunday night up Miller Creek resulting from last week’s electrical storm.
“From the Lolo perspective, we’re hosting three incident management teams right now, including Rock Creek, where we have evacuation notices in place right now,” Hensiek said. “It’s been a busy and challenging week.”
Tim Metzger, fire analyst on the Lolo Peak incident, arrived at the blaze several days ago to conduct samples on fuel moisture. The grim results, he said, suggest the region is two weeks ahead of where it should be, making July more comparable with mid-August.
It’s the same prediction University of Montana scientists made earlier this year when looking at the stat’s climate future.
“The conditions we’re experiencing now are the conditions we experience in mid-August,” he said. “The fuel moisture is very low. The bigger logs are 10 percent fuel moisture. If you buy a 2-by-4 at Home Depot, it’s sitting at 17 percent moisture, so fuel conditions are very dry.”
Those fuel conditions, mixed with Monday’s red flag weather, helped push the fire erratically in multiple directions, including an uphill run that spotted over Falls Creek.
By the end of Monday night, fire officials anticipated the fire would cross Lantern Ridge.
“The fire started high on the slope and has been backing down the slope, getting into thicker vegetation,” said Metzger. “There are two distinct vegetation types up there, including a thick conifer stand. That’s where it’s burning, backing down into Lolo Creek.”
While the conifer stands are providing fuel at lower elevations, above 7,000 feet is the sub-alpine fir that’s providing ignition. But Metzger said that depends upon wind to burn.
The fire got plenty of that wind on Monday, with gusts recorded above 30 miles per hour. Similar conditions expected Tuesday. Given the terrain, officials expect the fire to last into September.
“Unfortunately, you’re going to be living with this fire all summer,” said incident commander Greg Poncin. “On the good side, we’re all in this together and we’re going to have to work together to be successful in managing this to come out the other end as good as possible.”