by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
September 10, 1998
More than 60 firefighters continue to battle a lightning-caused fire in the Mission Mountains Wilderness this week. The Forest Service started dropping water and fire retardant on the fire when it was discovered west of Condon Saturday afternoon between Cold Lake and Jim Lake just inside the wilderness.
Strong thunderstorms on Monday night brought rain and relief to firefighters, but fire managers are still concerned.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Ted Richardson, assistant fire management officer with the Swan Lake Ranger District said Tuesday. Because of the long-drying trend in August and early September, and the types of fuels burning in the Cold Lake area, the fire is still not under control and had burned nearly 50 acres by Tuesday afternoon.
"The rain gave us some breathing room. That's about all," Richardson said.
The lightning that accompanied the storm also sent state crews scrambling Monday night to douse four more fires in the Swan Valley near Condon.
Fires were scattered in various locations, Richardson explained. Crews responded to one fire across from the Holland Lake Road turnoff, another fire in the Cold Lake area, and a third fire in the Piper Creek drainage.
A fourth fire had been confirmed Monday in the Cat Creek drainage but crews were not able to detect smoke in that area on Tuesday.
Local fire managers were "running real slim for personnel" Richardson explained, until a fourth 20-man crew of initial attack firefighters arrived on Tuesday. That crew, he said, is being shared by four agencies: The Flathead National Forest (Condon); the Department of State Lands (Swan Unit); and the Lolo National Forest (Seeley Lake Ranger District). In addition, two daily air patrol flights are being conducted over the Swan Valley because of the lightning.
According to Swan Lake District Ranger, Chuck Harris, the Cold Lake fire burned too hot on Saturday and Sunday to attack it anywhere but from the air.
"It burnt so hot we couldn't put crews on it until Monday," he said.
Two Forest Service fire planes dropped retardant on the blaze, slowing it on Sunday. In addition, two helicopters have been dropping water on the blaze from two sides every day. Their efforts slowed the fire considerably, Harris said. He also credited rain and cooler temperatures.
"For the most part we're lucking out," he said, referring to rain, better humidity recovery and less wind. Temperatures that had been in the 90s on Saturday and Sunday only reached the low-80s on Tuesday.
Three twenty-man crews of firefighters are camped at Cold Lake. The Forest Service kitchen crew at Condon is providing the crews with hot dinners, cold breakfasts and sack lunches, via helicopter and pack train.
The road to Cold Lake and Jim Lake is closed at the last junction, approximately four miles from Highway 83, Harris said. The trails into the wilderness at Cold Lake and Jim Lake are also closed.
Although the fire is burning within wilderness, it is very close to the boundary. Harris explained that the goal of firefighting efforts is to keep the fire away from private and Plum Creek lands near the wilderness boundary.
Smoke from the fire has blanketed the Swan Valley since Saturday afternoon. Local residents could see the fire's flames from Highway 83 on Sunday, and several people also reported seeing the fire's glow from near Condon on Sunday night.
The Cold Lake fire is one of several lightning-caused fires discovered over the weekend along the Mission Mountains foothills between Condon and Swan Lake. Firefighters also brought three blazes near Swan Lake under control by Monday.
Fires in the Clearwater Valley near Seeley Lake were brought under control last week, but fire managers are watching for smoke as a result of strong thunderstorms and lightning Monday night.
A large storm passed through the Clearwater Valley from Gold Creek heading northeast toward Rice Ridge late Monday and power outages were reported in several areas as a result of gusty winds and toppled trees.
The Seeley Lake area received nearly a half an inch of rain during the storm, according to officials at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station.
The Center Ridge fire north of the Monture Guard Station was brought under control at less than an acre last week and firefighters were released on Friday, according to Becky White, fire crew supervisor, Seeley Lake Ranger District. However, fire crews in both the Clearwater and Blackfoot valleys have responded to small, lightning caused fires that are just now coming to life.
"There still might be some sleepers out there," White explained, especially because of Monday night's lightning activity.
Fire restrictions regarding campfires and cigarettes were still in place as of noon Tuesday. For more information contact the Forest Service or the Department of State Lands at Clearwater Junction.