LOLO — In a gully above Elk Meadows Road, new green grass already pokes out of the charcoal remains of the Lolo Creek Complex fire.
The mid-August fire left a moonscape along parts of U.S. Highway 12. It destroyed five homes and uncounted outbuildings, sheds and stuff — mostly in a two-day, 8,000-acre rampage that had many of the 4,000 residents of Lolo under evacuation notice 12 miles away. A few pockets of timber continue to burn above Woodman School, but restoration has begun.
Shari Cooper didn’t expect to become a logger when she moved alongside Lolo Creek. Now she has 95 dead trees to cut before they topple.
“The wind sounds different,” Cooper said, looking at the towering black trunks around her unburned home. “When you sit outside and talk, it echoes more. You can definitely hear the traffic a heck of a lot farther down the road.”
Mother-in-law Dorothy Cooper’s home burned to the foundations in the Aug. 19 inferno. Shari Cooper’s home, just 50 feet away, was spared. Her car melted.
“The insurance guy called and asked me when to send up a tow truck,” Cooper said. “I said bring a spatula, a forklift and a flatbed — you aren’t towing it out.”
Husband Gordon Cooper was busy dragging hunk after hunk of gray metal to his utility trailer: siding, roofing, washing machine frames, stoves, unidentifiable wreckage. He’d already made two trips to Pacific Recycling and had enough for three or four more.
The yard-logging must wait for the burned homes to be shoveled out. Cooper said if anyone cuts a tree now, the dust from the drop would cover her remaining house.
The foundation of Dorothy Cooper’s home contains an instant archaeology lesson, like digging through some pharaoh’s temple. A little stack of cylinders marked where a bag of camera gear sat. Fancy porcelain dishes lay in one corner where they’d been stacked in a china cabinet, while plain bowls and cups indicated the everyday kitchenware shelves.
“She had Corel,” Cooper said, looking at the dish fragments. “I thought that wasn’t supposed to break. How do you not laugh?”
Between mile markers 20 and 21, the Lolo Creek Complex did its wildest work. On Aug. 19, it built a tower of heat in the ridges between Elk Meadows Road and the south side of Highway 12. The resulting column effect sent waves of wind up and down Lolo Creek. Flames poured down the slopes, across the highway and into the hills on the north side of the highway.
There they linked with a second fire that was burning above Woodman School. While the Elk Meadows Road portion soon burned itself into a stall, the northern half continued to rain spot fires along the road corridor for several days even as it pushed northeast toward Sleeman Creek Road on Lolo’s fringe and Blue Mountain, where it could be seen from Missoula.
But none of that matched the fury around Bear Creek Road, where Dennis Mannel was shoring up the creek bank that provided water to save several houses.
“I guess God didn’t want me to have toys,” Mannel said, looking at the remains of a storage shed behind Gerald Mininger’s Bear Creek home. Mannel’s trailer and Mininger’s house came through the fire unscarred, even though they stood right where the Aug. 19 firestorm blew across Highway 12 and Lolo Creek like a toilet paper fence.
But the shed behind the house burned to the dirt. An aluminum ladder lay melted to the ground like a strip of cake frosting. Inside, Mannel’s Honda 1100 steel motorcycle frame still stood, but the aluminum engine block inside was a shapeless blob. His son Mike’s Jeep CJ-5 project car was a gray corpse, except for the front tubular brush guard, which gleamed an iridescent silver.
Even weirder, Mannel’s pickup and motorboat, which were between the shed and the burning forest, survived.
“Why didn’t that canvas cover burn off that boat?” Mannel wondered. “It had to be a blast furnace back here. But it never even blistered the paint on the pickup.”
Mannel and Mininger had worked hard to make the property firewise, clearing lots of space around the houses and keeping the irrigation system robust.
“One thing about living in rural Montana — you take the bad with the good,” he said. “This is all replaceable, and no one got killed.”
Jan Henderson lived a hundred yards from Lolo Creek but couldn’t see it. Now she can.
“Even behind our house, there were green trees and brush, but now everything’s kind of still,” Henderson said. “I saw some turkeys coming through the rubble, looking for food. The first day back, we saw a fawn hunkering in the bushes that hadn’t burned.”
The Hendersons have a tombstone for their son, Caleb, who was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. It was part of a memorial on the hillside that burned away. Jan said one of the first things she grabbed when she was evacuating was the mementos of Caleb. Now the family has to decide where to rebuild the shrine.
Plum Creek Timber Co. owns about 7,000 acres of the 10,902 acres that burned in the Lolo Creek Complex. Company Regional Vice President Tom Ray has said Plum Creek may start salvage logging this fall or winter to recover what marketable timber remains. He’s also studying options to reseed areas where the fire burned trees beyond commercial value.
Longtime Lolo Creek resident Cole MacPherson wondered if the trees will ever come back. MacPherson used to parachute into fires like the Lolo Creek Complex. Back in 1955, he was a smokejumper, riding DC-3s to the backcountry to fight fire by hand. Two Saturdays ago, he was watching the electrical storm flash over Lolo Creek and guessing what would happen next.
“In the good old days, we’d have a plane loaded before daylight,” MacPherson said. “We’d drop two guys at each burning snag.”
MacPherson has lived and trapped in the Anderson Gulch area along Lolo Creek for 40 years. He predicted the changes would remain visible for a long time.
“We’ll have some green grass a year from this spring, but the south-facing slope on the north side (of Highway 12) does not reforest worth a damn. It
doesn’t have any good mineral soil. I don’t even see the lodgepole coming back good.”
The gulch behind his house burned as hot as the bottom of a stove, clearing out decades of downfall.
“There was a big fir thicket that cleaned up nice,” MacPherson said. “You could tell where old timers camped in there. Might see if a guy could find any relics.”
University of Montana biologist Dick Hutto has been studying how burned areas regrow since he watched Pattee Canyon burn in 1977. The opportunity to study the Highway 12 corridor had him audibly excited on the phone. It’s an area where he’s had research transects since 1979.
“We may see some amazing responses,” Hutto said from his office at the UM Health Sciences Building. “There are a lot of species that occur hardly anywhere but severely burned forests.”
For example, northern hawk owls rarely appear in Montana, but they turned up outside West Glacier after the 2003 Robert fire. Great gray owls also move into burn areas, capitalizing on the sudden surge in rodent populations.
“And black-backed woodpeckers are screaming their story at you — their black backs say, ‘This is my environment,’” Hutto said. Oddly enough, ornithologists still don’t know how the woodpeckers find new burns. Hutto has never had a banded bird from one burn show up in another.
But he’s pretty certain why they come. Some species of beetle have an infrared detector in their thorax that alerts them to torched trees 100 miles away. The beetles swarm in to finish off the nutrients in dead standing timber. The woodpeckers follow and thrive.
“The story is about appreciating the changing nature of a disturbance-based system,” Hutto said. “It’s not going to be the same, and we have to celebrate that.”