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The 2017 Lolo Peak Fire--And Others--They Didn't Have To Happen

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

It all started with the Whetstone Ridge Fire article by Ben Smith (MSO-64) in the April 2018 issue of Smokejumper. In this article you can see the frustrations a person has with the USFS when the lands around them are burning. First, it is evident that someone with legitimate questions and knowledge of wildfire is a dangerous person. All of Ben's work has gone into a deep black hole.

I had little knowledge of the Lolo Peak Fire until one of our members called it to my attention. I looked into all of the reports on the USFS websites and gained a lot of information. There was a fatality on this fire. Could this have been avoided?

Then Ben Smith emailed me: "Here is what is even worse about the Lolo Peak Fire—I heard from two reliable sources that a planeload of jumpers was on the way back to MSO because they couldn't jump the fire they were dispatched to. They circled the Lolo Peak Fire, and the spotter radioed that he could jump that fire. He was told to stand down and return to MSO. I wonder if the parents of the kid that died know about that?"

This didn't surprise me at all. I'm still very disturbed about the Biscuit Fire back in 2002 that destroyed 500,000 acres at a base expense of $150 million. The USFS line was that there were not available resources. Total BS!

When that fire started, I immediately went to an NIFC source who gave me the daily reports listing the availability of resources, their location etc. There were over 100 jumpers available plus a lot of crews, mostly Type II. Before you put down Type II Crews, remember that one of them hiked in and put out one of the fires that started at the same time and in the same area as the Biscuit Fire.

The Start

Lightning July 15, 2017, in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, started the Lolo Peak Fire. Fire management was the responsibility of the Lolo N.F. It was contained on Oct. 31, 2017, at 53,902 acres and a cost of $48.4 million. There was one fatality as a tree he was falling killed Hotshot Brent Witham. Two homes were destroyed, 3,000 people evacuated, and 1,150 residences threatened. (Wikipedia)

Due to the remote location of the fire—steep, rugged terrain,——the decision to go indirect was made. Higher priority fires on the Forest that were imminently threatening communities required all available air resources, leaving the Lolo Peak Fire unstaffed for the first two days. (Bold and italics added-Ed.) (USFS Learning Review Narrative)

Sources confirm that there were smokejumpers available as close as Missoula that day and for the next few days.

On August 17, two homes were burned in
a backburning operation by firecrews. Public Information Officer Mike Cole said, "If we had not put, essentially, a giant catcher's mitt of black between the control line and where the fire is coming from, you'd have a whole different scenario of what the Lolo area looks like right now." (KPAX News)

The Incident Management Team (IMT) proposed using chain saws.... Both the Bitterroot NF Forest Supervisor and the Lolo NF Agency Representative, as well as the IMT, were unsure of where the decision authority rested to approve these operations.

(Relating to getting approval to use chain saws) This appeared to be a cumbersome and somewhat confusing web of authorities to track down, which increased both unnecessary communication complexity and the length of the decision-making process. While utilizing mechanized equipment in a specially designated area is not an impossible task, obtaining the required approvals can be viewed as a monumental one. (USFS Learning Review Narrative)

Is this a well-oiled machine that was prepared for the fire season? Are these questions and procedures that could have been done in advance of the fire season?

Isn't Smaller Safer?

Again, time after time, the question is: Wouldn't it be better to contain a fire when it is a tenth of an acre than to respond slowly and let it turn into a major fire?

The more phone calls I made on this fire, the more discouraging information I received. This fire could have been stopped by smokejumpers in the early stage. Early photos show a single column of smoke coming up from a snag on fire. It looked almost identical to the Whetstone Ridge Fire—a two-manner in the old days.

More from Ben Smith

"I sat down last May (2018) with the FMO of the Pintler District for about an hour at his invitation. Actually, I think it was at the direction of BDNF Sup. Melany Glossa. The purpose of the meeting was to give me the reasons why the Whet- stone Ridge Fire was allowed to grow from a burning snag to 60,000+ acres. I got the same runaround as I have before, with no good answers. At least I got the feeling that his heart is in the right spot and he is, at many times, frustrated with the direction and orders that he receives from his superiors. I understand that he has a family to feed and can't be candid with a civilian. During our conversation, when we were talking about smokejumper assets, I mentioned that I had heard that a planeload of jumpers returning to MSO circled the Lolo Peak Fire in its infancy and radioed that they could jump it, but were ordered not to. To my surprise, he confirmed the story!"

Suicide Mission

A fire information officer for the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation said in a news release in the Missoulian, Oct. 2017, "sending in firefighters to try to stop the Lolo Peak Fire while it was relatively small would have been 'almost a suicide mission.' When it comes to conditions like that, it's super steep and rocky terrain."

He then said, "We were tapped out on the re- sources as it was because we were having so many fires in the area——. It's really hard for fire agencies or the Forest Service to even get up in that area. Resources were already stretched thin, and fire managers have to make tough decisions."

Repeat—Sources confirm that there were smokejumpers available as close as Missoula that day and for the next few days.

Jumpers Who Survived Prior "Suicide Missions"

After the description above, I went to Roger Savage (MSO-57) and asked him to check his records for fire jumps made in this "super steep and rocky terrain." The list started with Ed Courtney (MSO-58) and Robert Wilson (MSO-57), who jumped a fire (August 1961) surprisingly named Lolo Peak. Then Dan Roberson (MSO-75) and Steve Straley (MSO-77) jumped another fire, same name, same place, September 1979.

Congratulations guys. I know for sure that three of the above are still alive as they get this magazine—you survived a "suicide mission."

There are ten more jumpers on Roger's list. Will not list all due to space limitations, but it is obvious that this area can be reached in a reason- able, short period of time by smokejumpers and is not a Suicide mission."

Here we go again as per the narrative on the Chetco Bar Fire covered in the October issue of Smokejumper—too steep, big trees, etc.—no can do.

It goes on and on. Six jumpers could have stopped this fire and saved a tremendous amount of resources and money. Where is the accountability? Doesn't anyone see through this wall of smoke? All of you living in Montana need to demand a change.

Higher Priority Fires Required All Available Air Resources

From George Buker (MSO-77): "Last weekend (September 2017), the rookie class of MSO-77 had a small group gathering. About 28 of us made it, and the Lolo Peak Fire was discussed with current jumpers in the loft. Their eyes rolled when the statement that was repeated was that the fire was in 'rugged, inaccessible terrain.' We didn't know it was on Mars!

"I did not hear that there were jumpers in the air, but I am certain I heard there were plenty at the base that day. Initial Attack could have nipped it. We discussed in detail the need for a fire policy, at least in R1, that aggressively attacks all new starts as quick as possible up until about Labor Day. It then transitions to let it burn and prescribed burns in October until snowfall.

"Sure our grandfathers did too good of a job and overreacted to the 1910 burn. We understand the science that fire is good, but the public can't stand 100 years of catching up in just a decade or two.

"Last summer, besides the Lolo Fire, the Bitterroot valley was smothered in smoke for months from a wilderness burn ten miles west that started in July and was never manned, and others. Why let wilderness fires go so early in the season, especially with this drought and higher temps?"

Too Steep—Too Rugged—No Resources?

What does a tax-paying citizen do when you hear this type of hype? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the public drinks the Kool-Aid. After all, the professionals know what they are doing!

From Roger Savage (MSO-57): "Last March I contacted the Lolo Forest and talked with public affairs spokesman Boyd Hartwig, who was a great help on providing information on the Lolo Peak fire.

"Early on I heard from a recent retiree who had a nephew working in fires for the Lolo forest. He told her that the ranger had decided to let this fire burn since it had started in the wilderness, and the area hadn't been burned over in over a hundred years. I never heard that story again, but I'm thinking that there's a fifty percent chance that it is true. In any case they didn't put boots on the ground for the first week.

"FS spokespersons on the evening news kept referring to the lack of placing ground troops on the fire as it was too steep, too rugged, too dangerous, and no jump spot available. Same old BS! As you well know, in looking back at old newspaper clippings on fires from back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you never find these excuses used. And if these articles do talk about steep country, they are probably talking about the Salmon River country and those fires were always fought."