Fire crews douse Mt. Sentinel blaze with high profile attack, aerial show

A helicopter conducts bucket drops on Mt. Sentinel on Thursday evening to contain a wildfire that started near the base of the slope and slowly burned up hill over the course of an hour. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Fire crews from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the city of Missoula and the Lolo National Forest responded to a high profile wildfire on Mt. Sentinel shortly after 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.

The cause is under investigation.

The fire appeared to have started at the base of the popular mountain near a hiking trail close to the University Golf Course. It wasn’t long before the flames made an uphill run, rapidly burning dried vegetation between two of the mountain’s iconic gullies.

The “M” Trail was closed and the Missoula City Fire Department asked everyone to stay off the mountain and away from the area. DNRC aided the city on the fire, DNRC spokesperson Kristen Mortensen said later in the night.

Fire engines were positioned at the base of the mountain and an air-attack aircraft monitored the fire.

A heavy double-bladed Type 1 Chinook helicopter from the Lolo National Forest came in to help, making multiple runs while sucking large quantities of water from the Clark Fork River and dumping it on the leading edge of the fire. A smaller Type 2 DNRC 87M helicopter aided with bucket drops.

Meanwhile, two small single-engine air tankers flew over from Ronan to dump fire retardant that left red stripes on the mountain.

“It’s one of those things that you’re close to a lot of homes so we wanted to step on it pretty quickly,” Mortensen said. “It looks like the air operations were pretty successful.”

A Type 2 DNRC 87M helicopter aids with bucket drops on the Mt. Sentinel fire on Thursday evening. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Two engines drove the fire road that traverses the mountain to get above the burn, while the helicopters continued their water drops. The water drops and the road stopped the fire from moving up the mountain.

“A couple factors look like they came into play. The fire road at the top and the gully on the south side helped contain (the fire). And also there were some green fuels in those gullies that hadn’t burned,” Mortensen said.

“It’s a good thing we had some of that green in there, but we also hit it fast. The aircraft was on it fairly quickly, and it really helps to get that fire knocked out of those fire fuels that burn really fast.”

The University of Montana sent out an alert text – the second of the night – just before 8 p.m.

“To accommodate emergency vehicles and crews, access to the fire, the following traffic restrictions have been placed,” the alert read. “All eastbound traffic on South Ave. at Arthur has been stopped. All southbound traffic on Maurice at East Sussex has been stopped. Additional information will follow.”

By 8:15, no smoke could be seen as the helicopters made some final water drops in the gullies before heading back to base. All that remains is a blackened rectangle outlined by red stripes at the base of the mountain.

As of 9:30 p.m., the fire was considered 75% contained. Engine crews continued to monitor the perimeter as darkness fell.

It’s fortunate the fire didn’t start later because the aircraft cannot fly after a half-hour after sunset. Had the fire started later, they would have had less time to put the fire out.

Missoula County officials declared a fire emergency earlier in the day, saying fuel conditions were prime for new fire starts.

University of Montana students watch the fire make an uphill run as air attack worked to contain the fire’s movement. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As the fire took off, people stood in locations across town to watch the fire, some setting lawn chairs in open areas with clear views to watch the fire’s progress and its steady extinguishing.

Students also stood outside university housing with eyes to the sky while golfers on the University Golf Course set aside their drivers to watch the activity above.

“It’s cool. A lot of people turned out to see this,” Missoula resident Rick Shonburg said. “You don’t see fires in town like this so often.”

Missoula resident Niqole Morris said she was impressed by the response to the fire after seeing similar fires handled by her husband.

“I think they did a great job of handling it in this amount of time,” she said.