LOLO – With a rip of their chain saws, a fire crew from Michigan marched down a newly carved dozer line removing brush and limbs, building what fire managers hope will stop the Lolo Creek Complex fire from pushing east across Sleeman Gulch.
All along the fire’s eastern front on Thursday, fire crews scattered across sun-parched ridges and blackened fields preparing for winds forecast later in the evening.
Exactly when the winds would come remained a big uncertainty, and it left fire crews racing the clock and an invisible hour they hoped would never arrive.
“We’re trying to hold this fire in check for the next couple hours until we can get a line built across that opposite ridge so we can fire it off and secure it with the highway,” said firefighter Jim Harrington.
From his vantage point at Fort Fizzle, Harrington observed the progress of a single dozer cutting a fire break across the ridge above the highway. The machine sent up clouds of dust as it cut the tinder-dry soils.
On the opposite slope, fire crept downhill. The gully between is where managers planned to stop the fire’s eastern push – a last stand before the blaze entered Sleeman Gulch to the east and its heavy timber and homes.
“If the fire crosses the draw on the other side, it will definitely interfere with our plans on the opposite ridge,” Harrington said. “We’re pushing that dozer line to intersect with a hand line a Hotshot crew put in. We have to have time to implement a firing operation before the winds pick up so we can tie it back into the bottom.”
The Lolo Creek fire didn’t cross the barrier and, overall, it saw little growth Thursday, with 652 personnel assigned to the blaze by night’s end. No additional homes were lost, and the fire’s size was estimated at roughly 9,504 acres with 30 percent containment.
While Harrington’s crew worked to build the fire break above Fort Fizzle, down in Sleeman Gulch, the crew from Michigan went to work removing debris along a new dozer line.
The time-consuming effort sought to protect dozens of homes lining the heavily timbered and populated gulch north of Highway 12. If the fire reached this point – and crossed it – fire managers fear it could burn cleanly to Lolo.
“We’re going to brush it in about a chain and get it pulled to the other side of the road and prep it for a burnout this afternoon,” Peter Costa told his crew. “Let’s get the saws to the front and brush it out.”
The amount of resources going to protect area homes became increasingly clear as the day pressed on. Firefighters had been relegated to raking pine needles from yards while others cleared brush and limbed up trees surrounding homes.
The Montana State Forester Bob Harrington – unrelated to the firefighter – said it was part of the bargain when fighting a fire in the wildland-urban interface.
“When you have an interface fire, the priority of the incident management team – of everyone really – is to protect the highest value at-risk resources, and in a lot of cases – in this case – it’s people’s homes,” Harrington said.
West down Highway 12, the ground smoked where the fire destroyed five homes during Monday’s blowup. Backing up to the forest, several other homes managed to escape the flames, the blackened earth telling how close the structures came to being lost.
But the fight wasn’t over yet, as teams of firefighters spent their day watching flames cross the hillsides above several homes. They stood ready to act if debris tumbled onto a porch or lit a backyard tree.
“The fire will burn the limbs off those logs and cause them to roll down the hill,” said Josh Abee, a firefighter from North Carolina. “It’s burning across the hill right now, but if that comes our way to the bottom, it’ll light up real fast.”
Other crews continued to douse hot spots along the highway. The mop-up teams working behind the fire dug at tree roots and sprayed down smoldering logs.
Apple trees burned on Monday dropped their fruit. The frames of burned-out horse trailers and the skeletons of lost homes hung in the distance, ghostly images just visible through the smoke.
“The weather has been cooperating – the storms didn’t develop, at least here,” said fire information officer Tom Kempton late Thursday night. “We are watching the fact that this weather, as it continues to come in, might pick up some ridge-top winds up to 30 mph. If the winds mix down the ridgetops, they’ll align with the drainage, so they’ll watch that closely and see how that holds.”
While evacuations began on Monday and continued into Tuesday, not everyone heeded the warnings. The Day family chose to remain in their home, saying they saw the 1988 fires burn near Lolo and weren’t concerned this time around.
“When they had the volunteer evacuations, everyone was pretty much staying,” said Patsy Day, the hillside still burning behind her home. “When it came around the hill down here and the draw started burning, there were quite a few more who left. We were here in ’88 and so we’ve seen this mountain burn before. We saw how little it affected us then.”