Tester, Bullock tour canyon blackened by Lolo Creek Complex fire


by Rob Chaney

LOLO – The Lolo Creek Complex fire was named the nation’s No. 1 firefighting priority on Wednesday, as a type 1 incident command team took over and two of Montana’s top elected officials came to call.

After two days of chaotic growth, the fire was one wild-weather day away from the homes along Sleeman Gulch. From there, the next stop might be the western edge of Lolo itself.

“The good news is we actually are the top priority in the nation for resources,” incident commander Greg Poncin said during a briefing with Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester at the Lolo command post. “So that bodes pretty well. The bad news is, the well is still pretty dry.”

The governor and senator came to thank the firefighters and offer what resources their respective offices could provide. In Bullock’s case, a contingent of 90 state National Guard troops, including two Black Hawk helicopter teams, will be in place on Thursday. Tester asked for input on how federal logistics were working out.

Then both men joined Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen to see firsthand what the Lolo Creek Complex had already done on its 8,598-acre rampage. A 12-mile drive west on U.S. Highway 12 started in a bucolic rural landscape that soon switched to moonscape.

The first roadside smokes could be seen on the hillsides north of Fort Fizzle, just four miles from Lolo. From there to Woodman Elementary School, much of the roadside was deliberately blackened by fire crews who had burned out grass and brush before embers from higher up the mountain could torch the creek bottom.

Some spot fires did make it down the slopes on Tuesday night, forcing closure of Highway 12 just as Montana Department of Transportation officials hoped to start an escort car convoy to restore traffic to the Idaho border.

“We had fire burning under wood decks, and under people’s eaves yesterday,” fire operations section chief Mark Goeller said Wednesday afternoon. On the drive up the highway, several houses had blackened lawns and trees, but appeared otherwise undamaged.

“A lot of that was good luck and good use of defensible space,” Ibsen said during the tour. “And there were fire trucks around lots and lots of houses last night.”


At Mill Creek Road, eight miles west of Lolo, Ibsen said the forest was “a spectacular show of Roman candles” as trees torched along the hillside. Just beyond, Woodman School’s white belfry gleamed in the sun against a still-burning slope of timber. Fire crews had set burnouts along much of that area to keep the runaway fire from getting the upper hand.

Next to the school, a herd of 150 cattle that had been evacuated from one pasture south of the highway to another on the north side grazed peacefully as trees burned just a few hundred yards away. A line of sprinklers kept their grass green and defended.

Elk Meadows Road marked the spot where ground crews made a desperate stand to check Monday’s firestorm. They successfully burned out much of the foliage on the road’s western side just as the fire was at the height of its destruction.

For the next three miles, devastation scarred both sides of the highway.

“Look at the capriciousness of the fire,” Ibsen said as he headed up the driveway of a ravaged home. “The little guesthouse and garage didn’t get it.”

But the main house had nothing left standing but a stone chimney and a brick deck.

“Look at the forklifts,” Tester said, pointing to the charred hulks of machinery in what had once been a tool shed. “Gone.”

Nails and bolts littered the walkways around houses where every scrap of burnable material was vaporized. A nearby satellite dish looked untouched.

“And all you have left is the barn,” Bullock observed. Ash was still falling on the scene as several trees on the hillsides flickered with stubborn flame.

Sheriff’s deputies confirmed five homes on four properties burned to the ground in the fire, along with numerous outbuildings, vehicles and other possessions. In one case, a home with a wood shingle roof, outbuilding full of firewood and several other structures stood in the middle of its green lawn while the property 50 feet to the west was surrounded by trees and burned to the foundation.

“This is a perfect example of what a little green grass and cutting the limbs up on the trees can do,” Ibsen said, pointing to the two homesites. “Green grass, no green grass.”

In the blackened roadsides, Missoula Rural Electric Co-op and Blackfoot Telecommunications Group repair crews were reconnecting burned cables and replacing power poles. The electricity lines had been burned through since Monday, depriving not only the Lolo Creek area but also the Powell Ranger District compound across the border in Idaho.

Around Camp Creek Road and Bear Creek Road, the hillsides looked sterilized. Yet the creek bottoms still had green vegetation, and numerous homes survived the fire’s hottest thrust. Yellow-shirted firefighters roamed from driveway to driveway, clearing tottering trees and mopping up smoldering hot spots.

“God love ’em, but I don’t know what makes anyone want to be a firefighter,” Ibsen said. “Especially a wildland firefighter. It’s just nonstop.”