HELENA — Last week’s snowfall on the Elbow Pass Complex wildfire — in places, up to a foot — has prompted the Lewis and Clark National Forest to rescind some of the trail closures along the Rocky Mountain Front and north of Lincoln.
Officials report that on Tuesday, portions of the fire were quite active due to winds associated with an approaching cold front. The fire was spreading in Rapid Creek, Sugarloaf and Bar Creek on the west side of the Continental Divide, with some tree torching and short crown runs in the Halfmoon area east of the Divide.
However, that cold front also brought the first measureable precipitation since mid-August. Snowfall east of the Continental Divide appeared to be quite heavier than to the west, with the portion of the fire in the Flathead National Forest receiving only about 2.5 inches of snow.
“Although some chance of continuing fire activity is possible mainly on the Flathead NF portion of the fire, the Lewis and Clark portion is now considered contained,” Wendy Clark, the forest’s public information officer on the fire, wrote in an email. “Containment means that fire may continue to smolder or burn in some isolated interior areas, but it is not expected to spread beyond the existing perimeter.”
She noted that they’ll continue to monitor the fire with occasional flights, as well as by ground crews working to assess and clear trails while carrying out other fire-related tasks.
The blanket national forest closures along the Front and north of Lincoln are being replaced with specific trail closures, which are needed to protect public safety in areas where significant risks exist from unstable snags, undermined trail tread, fallen trees, recurring fire and other hazards.
Trails that reopen as of midnight Friday include: Straight Creek Trail (#212) in its entirety; Hoadley Creek Trail (#226) and Stadler Pass Trail (#271) on the Flathead NF, connecting to the Hoadley Creek Trail.
Trails that will continue to be closed include: South Fork Sun River (#202) south of its junction with Hoadley Creek Trail (#226); Ellis Creek Trail (#227); Elbow Pass Trail (#248); Cigarette Rock Trail (#247); Petty Crown Trail (#232) west of the Wilderness boundary; Green Fork Trail (#228) and Halfmoon Creek Trail (#216).
Clark asks that people contact the Rocky Mountain Ranger District office to check the status of these and other trails.
Because the west side of the fire on the Flathead National Forest has been active and received less precipitation, a reduced area closure will remain in place to protect public safety.
Clark said that people traveling through recently burned areas should use extreme caution. She notes that standing dead or dying trees may fall without warning if their root systems have been compromised by fire. Snags may be particularly unstable on windy days or in moist ground. Newly fallen trees may rest upon each other or other surfaces in an unstable fashion, shifting easily underneath when someone is attempting to climb over or through, or when attempting to cut through them.
In addition, while the surface of a trail or the ground may appear sound, roots or other organic matter may have burned underneath the surface causing places where the trail or ground surface gives way without warning.
People also need to know that while the snowfall has greatly reduced fire activity, some burning may still occur and they need to be alert for smoke and the potential of fire nearby.