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Linda Mutch
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Fire Behavior
Human Dimensions of Fire Management
Wildland Urban Interface

NRFSN number: 19554
Record updated:

The lightning-ignited Lolo Peak fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was discovered on July 12, 2017, burning in an area of high tree mortality and rugged terrain. During the field trip, which was held as part of the May 2018 Fire Continuum Conference, managers, scientists, a county sheriff, and a property owner guided 41 participants through a series of stops with views of the burn area and prior fuel treatments. They highlighted the science, management and safety challenges, and public communication priorities that informed decisions on managing the fire, which burned until late October and reached 54,000 acres in size.

Although most of Spring 2017 was wet and green in western Montana, numerous consecutive days of 90+ degree weather with no significant precipitation led to a flash drought, or a rapid-onset drought. By July 12th, lightning storms had started numerous fires near Missoula, and in surrounding areas. On July 15th, an air attack plane discovered the Lolo Peak Fire burning at high elevation in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Throughout the remainder of the fire season, many fires ignited and burned in the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, causing smoky conditions throughout the region.

The Lolo Peak Fire ignited in an area that had not experienced significant fire in many years, and large portions of the area were dominated by lodgepole pine and mixed conifer forests comprising 40-50 percent dead trees. Most recent fires had been small or effectively suppressed. Thus, fuels and forest conditions along with remote, rugged terrain made direct line construction unsafe. The location of the primary fireline was based on creating a working zone for firefighting resources that had escape routes and safety zones in areas that were less steep with fewer snags and where fuels were more favorable for successful suppression actions. Indirect line construction combined with burnout operations was chosen as the best strategy to safely manage this fire. While the Lolo Peak Fire had significant smoke impacts, early planning for a long-duration event allowed time to establish and implement a plan to reduce the probability of property damage and loss of life.