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Update – Northern Edge of Lolo Creek Complex Sends Up Huge Plume of Smoke [AUDIO]

UPDATE – Saturday, August 24 5:30 p.m.

Lolo Fire northern edge
Photo by Peter Christian

The plume of smoke rising from the Lolo Creek Complex is coming from the northern edge of the fire.

Fire Information Officer Dixie Dies said at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, that since the bulk of the firefighting efforts had been concentrated on the south and east edges of the fire in order to keep it from threatening Lolo, the northern edge had the least priority.

“The plume of smoke is coming from the northern edge which has been burning all along in the Woodman Creek area,” Dies said. “Now that the eastern and southern perimeters of the fire have been secured, all our efforts are now being concentrated on that northern edge.”

Dies said Highway 12 remains open and the evacuees who returned home this morning are in no danger at this time.

“The large plume of smoke is about four miles north of Highway 12, and it is highly unlikely that the fire is going to come back across Highway 12,” she said. “There is, however, concern about the spread of the fire to the north.”

Nearest to the northern edge of the fire are not homes, but power lines.

“The Bonneville power lines are about three to four miles from the northern edge, and that’s a pretty big deal, because they supply power to the northwest United States,” Dies said. “About six to eight miles from the northern edge is the Blue Mountain recreation area. The terrain is rough and steep, and we’re concerned about the lack of safety zones that we can establish up there [where firefighters can escape from advancing flames]. We’re not going to put people up there unless its safe. That area is where our eight helicopters and 13 or 14 crews are working right now.”

Dies said the inversion lifted much earlier today, which allowed the fire to gather strength on the northern perimeter. Crews are working on containing the area at this time.

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UPDATE – Saturday, August 24, 9:30 a.m.

Fire officials with the Lolo Creek Complex announced Saturday morning that U.S. Highway 12 has been reopened and evacuees can return home. However, they will still be on a pre-evacuation notice.

Information officer Mike Cole said that Highway 12 has been reopened at a reduced speed limit.

“Speed limit is 45 miles per hour both eastbound and westbound,” Cole said. “There’s still a lot of smoke out there and a lot of fire traffic on the road so people need to travel slowly. Do not exceed that 45 miles per hour speed limit, or you’ll find yourself with a speeding ticket.”

Cole said that the evacuation order is now lifted, but with some limitations

“The evacuation has been lifted,” Cole said. “But, people are still under pre-evacuation orders, so they need to be able to leave at a moment’s notice, but, they can stay in their homes, go to work, things like that.”

The fire spans more than 10,000 acres, but good weather has enabled firefighters to provide enough protection to allow the major highway between Lolo and the Idaho state line to reopen.UPDATE – Friday, August 23 6:30 p.m.

Good weather, despite a Red Flag warning and a brief rain squall Friday morning, has allowed Lolo Creek Complex firefighters to gain a major foothold on fire lines. Fire Information Officer Dave Schmidt said Friday at 6:00 p.m. that two sides of the fire received lots of attention during the day.

“The crews have been working really hard, and the weather has provided us an opportunity to get some critical line work done on both the west and east side of the fire, as well as the south end along Highway 12,” Schmidt said. “There’s still some work to be done on the north side of the fire where the line has not been secured yet. The focus for the next few days will be to work east and west toward the middle on that north side.”

Schmidt said the spectacular scenes of torching trees and fire racing up hillsides have given way to firefighters working to mop up smoldering spot fires in most areas, and that’s exactly what fire officials want.

“We just want the fire out,” Schmidt said. “The closer we get to having the fire out, the sooner we can get the residents back into their homes, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Schmidt said the costs of fighting a major wildfire are staggering.

“As of last night,” Schmidt said, “the total expenditure on the fire was $2,320,000. The cost has been running at about $650,000 per day, just as a general figure.”

The Inciweb website says the fire is now 40% contained and has consumed 9,962 acres.

Fire Information Officer Dave Schmidt

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UPDATE – Friday, August 23, 7:20 a.m.

As Peter Christian was interviewing Fire Information Officer Paula Short on Friday morning, thunder and lightning could be heard in the background. A red flag warning is in effect for the area until 3 p.m.

Here is the interview with Paula Short

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UPDATE – Thursday, August 22, 7:30 p.m.

A very happy Dixie Dies, Fire Information Officer for the Lolo Creek Complex, said Thursday night that firefighters had a good day keeping the fire from spreading past its current 9,504 acres. According to Inciweb, the fires are now 30 percent contained.

“We had a great day today,” Dies said. “Knock on wood, we did not have the winds that were predicted and so as a result of that we were able to get some pretty good line on the southeast corner of the eastern part of the fire, which is the section we were concerned about.”

Dies said the process of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office granting permits for residents to be allowed to visit their homes Thursday between 9 a.m, and 11 a.m. went smoothly, and will be repeated Friday.

Dies also said firefighters will be keeping an eye out for the red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service.

“We have our own incident meteorologist,” Dies said. “We get our weather here rather than 30 or 40 miles away, so that the information goes directly out to crews in the field so they can take the appropriate precautions. That may be pulling out and getting out completely, or maybe just taking shelter in their vehicles.”

Fire Information Officer Dixie Dies

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UPDATE Thursday, August 22, 7 a.m.

The Lolo Creek Complex has been declared the number one firefighting priority in the nation. That statement was made Wednesday evening, August 21 to a Lolo School gymnasium whose bleachers were packed full, with dozens more standing along the walls.

Peter Christian’s live on-air update with Tom Kempton, Type One Fire Information Officer.

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Lolo Creek Complex
Photo courtesy of Darlene Richards

Incident Commander of the Northern Rockies Management team from the U.S. Forest Service Greg Ponson made the announcement that the Lolo Creek Complex had received nationwide attention.

“We took the fire over this morning at 6 a.m.,” Ponson said. “We’ve got about 508 people assigned to the incident. A lot of people are coming in on the fire. Coincidentally, within the National Interagency Fire Team, this fire is ranked as the top priority in the country today. Tomorrow, we’re going to have nine more helicopters made available to us. We’ve got 30 engines out there, and those are from various local fire departments, and we’ve got approximately 11 hand crews out there.”

Ponson said airplanes are being used to fight the fire as well as manpower and engines.

“The fire is about 8,598 acres today, and you probably saw a lot of air tankers flying around,” Ponson said.  “We dropped about 40,000 gallons of retardant today to hold that fire up on the ridge.”

Incident Commander Greg Ponson

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Even Montana’s congressional delegation weighed in on the Lolo Creek Complex, with a letter to FEMA.

Montana’s U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester are urging the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to unleash every appropriate resource available for the Lolo Creek Complex fire.

In a letter to FEMA administrator William Craig Fugate today, Baucus and Tester thanked the agency for approving Montana’s request for assistance, and urged him to plow through any red tape as soon as possible.

“We encourage your agency to do all that it can to expedite this process, keep Montana’s devastating fires a priority and keep the lines of communication open to Montanans during this time of uncertainty,” Baucus and Tester wrote. “This is a very serious situation and we must move fast to limit the amount of damage done by this fire.”

Firefighters enjoyed good weather on Wednesday, and were able protect several homes from being burned. Patrol Captain Rob Taylor with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office said there were no new evacuations on Wednesday, which drew applause from the appreciative audience, made up mostly of Lolo residents and those who had been evacuated from their homes up Highway 12.

Taylor went through the evacuation notice procedures, holding up a yellow poster that was taped to over 1,200 doors in the Lolo area, stating that the home was in an area that could potentially be affected by the fire. He said, if worst came to worst, and the area had to be evacuated, there would be a distinct signal to go.

“We will put a marked emergency vehicle in your neighborhood with lights going and sirens going through all the different modes,” Taylor said. “We will drive very slowly and deliberately around your neighborhood. You won’t mistake this with us going to a call, so don’t run out the back door,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “That means, unequivocally, it is time to go.”

Taylor also announced that area residents would be seeing law enforcement officers from other communities around the state coming to assist the understaffed Missoula Sheriff’s Department.

“Tomorrow, you’re going to start seeing Gallatin County Sheriff’s units here,” Taylor said. “They will be working with us, under the same authority, doing the same job. For some of our stationary areas to help maintain security, we’re going to begin using citizen soldiers from the Montana National Guard.”

Taylor said he had no idea when Highway 12 would reopen, as the fires are burning on both sides of the road, and until the area was cleared by fire officials, the highway would remain closed from Lolo to the Idaho state line.

Patrol Captain Rob Taylor

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