Missoula — Missoula had a ringside seat at its own backyard forest fire Wednesday, as everything from hand crews to slurry bombers converged on Mount Jumbo.
Someone’s errant fireworks apparently started the fire about 10 p.m. Tuesday in East Missoula, just behind the Aspen Motel on Jumbo’s steep eastern face. Flames shot up the grassy slope and spread over much of the hillside, including several of the wooded gullies leading to the summit.
“When they called it in, it was about 10 feet by 15 feet,” said Jamie Rosdahl, a fire prevention specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “But when the fire department got there 10 minutes later, it had just taken off.”
East Missoula resident Lisa Silva’s home was just 40 feet from the start of the fire. She was watching people across U.S. Highway 12 lighting fireworks in a parking lot when it started.
“I was sitting out on the front porch and didn’t see anything go over,” Silva said. “Then all of a sudden, there was a fire on the hill. We watched it burn to the trees. It was pretty quick.”
Fire engines from the East Missoula Fire Station deployed to protect houses and structures around the base of the hill Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, most of the timber appeared quiet, but grass on the southern crest of the hill was burning vigorously. A 20-person hand crew was the first to climb the hill and scout the timbered areas.
About 8:30 a.m., the grass fires started swirling and running west toward Hellgate Canyon. The temperature was 68 degrees, with 65 percent relative humidity. A helicopter with a water bucket arrived to douse hot spots in some central gullies where heavy fuel was smoldering.
By 10:30 a.m., things got complicated.
The grass fire had crested Jumbo’s backbone and could be seen scorching its way down into the Rattlesnake Valley. At the same time, some of the thick timber near the summit was also igniting. Two helicopters were now buzzing around the top, while the hand crew was trying to smother flames just above the Cobblestone condominium complex. A large hawk floated motionless in thermal updrafts near the summit, looking for rabbits and mice flushed out by the flames.
A red, white and black P-3A slurry bomber arrived at 11:45 a.m. and laid a strip of fire retardant along the southern crest of the mountain. The red line halted the upper edge of the grass fire, but left about half the flame front unaffected.
It took several more passes along the grassy face, including a couple of downhill runs that ended in dramatic pivots away from the steep northern face of Mount Sentinel. Then it started marking lines around the summit.
As the day heated up, the fire behavior got stronger. Rosdahl said the grass fire started to “back against the wind.” That’s where flames cut into new territory even though the wind is blowing them toward already-burned ground. The fire was also able to creep around the lower edge of the slurry line and take another run at Jumbo’s western face. The relative humidity, a major factor in fire behavior, had dropped to 33 percent by 2 p.m.
“It skipped over the red line,” Rosdahl said about 3:30 p.m. “The incident commander’s opinion was not really that we lost it, but that we never really caught it in the first place.”
Despite blackening more than 200 acres of hillside, the wildfire never seriously threatened any homes around the mountain. Missoula Mayor John Engen ordered Jumbo closed to public access early Wednesday morning, but said the ban was temporary. There was no call to close other public open space.
Fire trucks were stationed near the top of Lincoln Hills in the Rattlesnake and above East Missoula, but the flames stayed well south of either neighborhood. Most of the defense went to the 120 hand-line firefighters and three aircraft called to the mountain.
And by 4 p.m., a light rain had knocked most of the fight out of the fire.
“We don’t have a sense that fire danger is extraordinarily high elsewhere,” Engen said Wednesday afternoon. “It appears to be a case of Fourth of July.”
Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said he was pleased with how the interagency effort including East Missoula Fire, Missoula Rural Fire, Missoula City Fire, DNRC, Seeley Lake Fire and the U.S. Forest Service worked smoothly and efficiently.
Ground crews expected to chase down hot spots Wednesday night and Thursday, when most of the work should be finished.
“This early in the season, to have everything come together so well is good,” McMeekin said. “After the rains, we’re going to have great new range for the elk.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.