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Update – Lolo Creek Complex Now 70% Contained – Estimated Containment September 3 [AUDIO]

UPDATE – Thursday, August 29, 7 a.m.

Peter Christian spoke with Fire Information Officer Dave Schmitt on the Montana Morning radio show. Schmitt said the fire is now 70 percent contained.

“We’ve completed the line around the fire, so now we have a big circle all around the fire. Although we’re still working on those lines, we need to mop them up and increase them to a few hundred feet to make sure the fire can’t jump over and continue to spread,” Schmitt said. “The fire is still at 10,902 acres and is 70 percent contained. We have 882 people working including the Canadians who went to work on the fire lines. The total price so far stands at $9 million dollars.”

Lolo Creek Complex Fire Information Officer Dave Schmitt

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UPDATE – Tuesday, August 27 7 a.m.

Lolo Creek Complex Fire Information Officer Dave Schmitt said Tuesday morning that firefighters have firmed up lines around the north end of the fire, further protecting the 500 kilovolt BPA power lines. Schmitt said the Blue Mountain Recreation Area, not far from the power lines, is closed because of extreme fire danger.

Peter Christian with Dave Schmitt

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UPDATE – Monday, August 26, 7:00 a.m.

Wind and rain hit the area Sunday night, but according to David Schmitt, fire information officer with the Lolo Creek Complex fire, the fire wasn’t impacted much one way or the other by the weather.

“It’s still too early too tell about the new starts,” Schmitt said. “We did get some rain last night, but sadly the most rain fell in fire camp. It was real spotty up on the fire. I don’t think they’ll will be much of an impact. Once the sun comes out and it warms up a bit it will dry out and we’ll be right back where we were earlier.”

The fire, which has 764 people working on it, is currently at 10,892 acres and is 47 percent contained.

More from fire information officer David Schmitt:

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UPDATE Sunday, August 25, 1p.m.

Lolo Creek Complex fire officials are concentrating the vast majority of their resources on surrounding the northern edge of the fire. Fire Information Officer Wayne Wynick said on Sunday afternoon that winds expected in the area on Saturday never materialized, which was helpful in the effort to contain the blaze.

“The fire is currently at 10.982 acres and is still listed at 40 percent contained, which, of course, means its 60 percent uncontained,” Wynick said. “We are adjusting resources from the area along the Highway 12 corridor to the northern edge of the fire where most of the activity is right now. That’s where that big plume of smoke rose from on Saturday afternoon and evening.”

Wynick said that with the fire less than two miles from the Bonneville Power Administration lines, officials are working hard to keep the fire away, with firefighter safety being their number one concern.

“Officials are working out all sorts of alternative possibilities as to how deal with that,” Wynick said. “If we can keep the fire from advancing, that gives us more time to get control lines in place. They’re looking at a couple of contingencies that would keep the fire away from that power line, but it’s going to depend upon fire behavior. If it decides to get up and roll, for safety’s sake, we have to pull people out from in front of it, and hope that we can redirect it from the sides until it slows down.”

Just a few miles beyond the BPA power lines is the popular Blue Mountain Recreation Aarea, but Wynick did not seem too concerned that the fire would head that direction.

“At this point, the fire behavior people are feeling pretty secure that the fire is mostly going to be running northward,” Wynick said. “If we can anchor it, the fire’s not likely to be swinging toward that recreation area. However, all bets are off if we get alternating winds, because you can’t predict fire behavior more that just a short distance ahead.”

Highway 12 remains open, and the families who have been allowed to return to their homes are still on a pre-evacuation notice, meaning they must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if the fire returns to their area.

Fire Information Officer Wayne Wynick:

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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 Dees 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,” Dees 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.”

Dees 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,” Dees 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.”

Dees 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 Dees, 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,” Dees 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.”

Dees 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.

Dees 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,” Dees 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 Dees

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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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