A bolt of lightning struck the forest around Lolo Peak in mid-July, one of many electrically charged spikes hitting numerous locations in Western Montana during summer 2017. The initially small acreage fire was tucked back in the South Fork of Lolo Creek proposed wilderness area on extremely rugged terrain that argued against early firefighting intervention. As the fire grew driven by extreme drought conditions and hot arid winds it pushed to the north then east and became officially designated the Lolo Peak Fire. A veteran firefighter was killed by a falling snag in the fire’s initial stages, a grim reminder of the hazardous, dangerous conditions confronting women and men firefighters.
The hard data profile from the official Incident Command reported the cause as natural, lightning caused. Fuels involved at 7,000 feet were sparse to patchy subalpine fir with dead white bark pine; below 7,000 feet, mixed conifers varying in composition, density, and dead/down levels. Lodgepole Pine provided higher intensity burning and with larch less intense burning. Fuels at lower elevations near containment lines were Ponderosa Pine with grass understory. The fire eventually burned 53,436 acres involving 488 firefighters and other personnel.
According to preliminary assessments the north slope of Carlton Ridge underwent a crown fire through ponderosa pine along with heavily burned white bark pine areas, much of it dead or rotted from blister rust. Preliminary estimates suggest that much of the alpine larch in the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area may have survived more intense burning partly based on the fact that the forest understory of whortleberry, heather, and other forbs was most likely a quick, lower to the ground burn (see the page on “Carleton Ridge Research Natural Area: Features and Effects of 2017 Wildfires”).
Our dismay over the fire ravaged landscape was abated by knowledgeable foresters and ecology experts who pointed out the forest rejuvenating effects a major fire has in cleaning up the forest. The last major burn in this area is estimated to have been in 1889. The ash strewn landscape and burn scars on the land will provide the way to new growth and renewal. These perspectives from professional foresters and scientists were in direct contrast to some of the political gas thrown out by anti-public lands politicians trying to blame environmentalists and an absence of large-scale logging in the area.
As rains and high elevation snow arrived by mid-September putting a stop to the fire the Friends of Lolo Peak Steering Committee met to begin piecing together an initial picture of what was lost. We attended Forest Service briefings and had US Forest Service personnel educate us on the Burned Area Emergency Response. The Forest Service emergency response began with conducting assessments and emergency stabilization to prevent further damage to life, property, or natural resources. The rehabilitation efforts focus on the lands unlikely to recover naturally from wildland fire damage and will be on-going. The assessment-plan implementation is staffed by hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, vegetation specialists, archeologists, and others who evaluate the burned area and prescribe emergency stabilization treatments.
Friends of Lolo Peak made several 2018 fall hikes into the burned areas. In mid-October we hiked the South Fork of Lolo Creek Trail about 3 miles into the forest. A second, early November hike up Forest Service Road 1311 for about 3 miles to the ‘slide area’ on the north facing, lower elevation of Carleton Ridge provides additional insights to both the destructive power of the fire and its checkboard pattern with some areas completely burned next relatively minor burned areas with a lot of greened areas left. The accompanying photos give an initial idea of the fire’s impact on trails and surrounding forest.
Friends of Lolo Peak has made numerous spring and summer hikes on the Carton Ridge trail to Carlton Ridge and down into the Carlton Lake Basin. An early fall 2022 hike revealed regrowth along the trail. Lodgepole saplings were abundant on the lower portion of the trail. Larch and White Bark Pine saplings were growing on the upper part of the trail as one comes onto Carlton Ridge. And large portions of the lake basin forest escaped much of the intense burning that occurred elsewhere in the area.
Banner photo by Uschi Carpenter, uschiphotography.com.
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