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Bitterroot Forest Fire Season – Part Two

sawtooth fire
Early photo of the Sawtooth forest fire southwest of Hamilton. (USFS Photo)
After weeks of only minor spot fires that were quickly extinguished, the Bitterroot National Forest is back in the firefighting mode in two locations.

Southwest of Hamilton is the 30-acre Sawtooth Fire. The lightning-caused fire started on top of a ridge (see photo) about 5 miles west of Hamilton on the south end of Downing Mountain. According to Public Affairs Officer Tod McKay, the blaze is 2 miles south of the 2010 Downing Mountain Fire and is burning in extremely steep and rugged terrain.

Because of the location, the initial attack Friday afternoon consisted of three helicopters with water buckets making trips to fire, which is located in an avalanche chute.

The Sawtooth Creek Trail is closed while the fire is active.


Earlier this week, the Mustang Complex of fires crept over the Montana border from Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest. It has since burned up about 3,000 acres in the West Fork Ranger District and caused an area closure near the same location as this year’s Chrandal forest fire.

Friday, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office issued a Stage 1 Evacuation Notice for residents of the upper Hughes Creek. The notice is for possible evacuation. The Stage 2 notice is an actual mandatory evacuation. The area was under an evacuation notice for weeks earlier this summer as crews successfully kept the Chrandal fire away from homes south of Painted Rocks Reservoir.

McKay said structure protection is being installed on residences in the area. However, the Mustang Fire is much bigger than the Chrandal Fire – Friday’s report was 205,000 acres. For that reason, another area being considered for structure protection is the Lost Trail Ski Area.

The Mustang Fire has already reached US Highway 93 north of North Fork, Idaho. Evacuation notices have been issued for areas around Gibbonsville, south of Lost Trail Pass in Idaho. Highway 93 remains open, but there are speed restrictions and drivers should expect smoke and fire traffic in the area.

Another consistent smoke producer for Ravalli County has been the Powell SBW Complex in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, west of Victor. Those fires, which include the Fern, Cedar and Freeze Out Queen fires, have burned over 26,500 acres. Smoke from those fires caused the Victor High School to move their Saturday afternoon football game from Victor to relatively smoke-free Arlee.

Air quality at the Hamilton air monitor Friday was “Unhealthy.”

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