HAMILTON – Standing a few yards away from Downing Mountain Lodge, Hamilton volunteer fire chief Brad Mohn watches a yellow-shirted fire crew slide down the steep hillside.
A trail of dust follows them in their descent through ground blackened the day the Sawtooth fire blew up.
Across the canyon, the entire mountainside is charred black.
Mohn looks back at the green trees still alive around this building, the highest up on the hillside.
Mohn has been tracking the fire since two days after it was first spotted and he knows that many people figured the lodge had gone up in smoke when the hillside was covered in fire.
There’s a sense of satisfaction in his voice when he talks about how people came together to protect this building and hundreds more down the hillside.
“This really did go well,” he said Thursday. “We didn’t lose any homes. ... I know there’s a lot of public perception out there being circulated about this fire by uninformed people, but it really did go very well.”
Mohn said the joint actions taken by both the U.S. Forest Service and volunteer fire crews from almost every Bitterroot Valley community kept the Sawtooth fire from being added to this year’s long and growing roll call of home-destroying wildfires around the nation.
“The preparations that were made early on at this fire saved a lot of homes,” he said.
The fire was first reported on the evening of Aug. 30. A helicopter found the 30-acre fire the next morning burning in rugged country deep in Sawtooth Canyon, about seven miles southwest of Hamilton.
“It was on the backside of Sawtooth in sheer rock cliffs,” Mohn said. “The Forest Service started hitting it with buckets of water as soon as they could.”
By noon that day, there were three helicopters continually dropping water on the blaze.
Officials had to wait for a helipad to be carved out of the forest before ground crews could be inserted. Once they were transported by helicopter to the mountain, those crews camped out several nights while trying to keep the fire from spreading.
Bitterroot National Forest supervisor Julie King said the decision was made early to bring a type 2 incident management team when the fire was still small and burning inside the wilderness.
“Getting a type 2 team for a 30-acre wilderness fire is really unheard of,” King said. “We asked for that team based on the potential of this fire.”
At the time, there were other much larger fires burning in the region and firefighting resources were tight.
“For us to get that team at that point in this fire was kind of a miracle,” she said. “We knew that weather was coming our way and we needed to be prepared and they supported us.”
In the first two days after the incident command team arrived, firefighters went to work to carve a contingency fire line between the fire and hundreds of homes along the valley’s edge.
When 50 mph winds roared over the top of the mountains and pushed the fire toward the valley, volunteer fire crews worked side by side with Forest Service firefighters to keep the fire on the western edge of the lines.
“I have no doubt that we would have lost homes without that contingency line,” King said.
Overall, King said the community has been very supportive of the efforts made on the Sawtooth fire, but there have been persistent rumors batted about the community that are discouraging.
Some have said the agency intentionally let the Sawtooth fire burn without taking action.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay.
Three helicopters were dropping water on the fire the very same day it was confirmed. For a time, helicopters were on loan from the massive Mustang Complex in an attempt to keep the fire from growing.
“We had a bigger air show than the Mustang for a time,” King said.
In June, the Forest Service made the decision to attempt to suppress all wildfires after an usually dry spring helped ignite fires around the West earlier than normal.
Of the 90 lightning-caused fires on the Bitterroot Forest this summer, initial attack crews were successful in putting out 98 percent of them.
Others in the community have said the agency should have brought in slurry bombers to fight the blaze.
In order to be effective, slurry bombers need to get in close to drop their loads. That, King said, would have been nearly impossible in the steep canyons surrounded by cliffs.
In rugged country like the Sawtooth area, helicopters can deliver their loads with far more accuracy and safety.
The agency set up a portable retardant plant that allowed helicopters to pick up and drop their loads on the fire every 12 minutes. More than 31,000 gallons of retardant were dropped on the fire.
To date, almost 2 million gallons of water have been dropped on the Sawtooth fire.
King said she’s also heard complaints that the Sawtooth fire was responsible for ruining the valley’s airshed over the past couple of months.
Folks should be looking to Idaho for that.
Four different Idaho fires to the south and west of the Bitterroot Valley have burned over about 1.45 million acres this summer. That acreage is nearly the size of the entire Bitterroot National Forest.
“The air in the valley was unhealthy even before the Sawtooth fire started,” she said.
Fire crews are now working to rehab fire lines in places where there’s no chance that fire will come again this season.
Until a good rain or maybe some snow arrives, the contingency line and some well-positioned fire line will remain in place.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Ryan Butler, a firefighter on loan from the Lolo National Forest.
On Friday, Roy Hall’s type 2 incident management team officially handed the reins of management of the Sawtooth fire over to Bitterroot Forest fire officials.
“That’s good news for the community,” said McKay. “Traditionally, that’s what happens when we feel we have the resources and manpower to manage a fire. That’s something we wouldn’t do without looking hard at a number of factors.“
McKay said fire officials say the eastern, northern and southern flanks of the 5,882-acre fire are in good shape. The most active portion of the fire is on the western edges where it’s burning away from town and in the wilderness, he said. After a Thursday night monitoring flight, the fire’s acreage dropped about 100 acres.
The arrival of fall-like temperatures next week should also help quell the flames even more.
“If we can finally get a break in the weather, it should make a difference,” McKay said.
Air quality has improved from measurements taken earlier in the week. At about noon Friday, the measurement in Hamilton rated moderate, which is an improvement from the unhealthy and very unhealthy ratings the week before.
Two heavy helicopters are continuing to drop water on the remote section of the fire burning along Sawtooth Canyon’s South Ridge when fire behavior warrants it. Crews continue to rehab hand and dozer lines along the fire’s perimeter.
The fire is officially considered 45 percent contained.
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at email@example.com.