What Roaring Lion revealed about climate change and wildfire 

On Sunday, July 31, 2016, after breakfast, Dave Campbell and Anita Harper Poe went to work stocking their woodshed. They hauled logs and split wood for several hours that hot summer day, unaware that they were making more fuel for the spark that would blow up to be the Roaring Lion fire.

Campbell, a retired Forest Service district ranger, will turn 65 this year. He started working with the Forest Service on the Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado when he was 18 and worked as a summer seasonal employee while attending college in Colorado before taking a permanent position in 1979. He had been around wildfires all his career. It's been his call on close to 300 wilderness fires whether to fight them or let them burn.

In 2004, the couple moved into their home near Hamilton, on the flanks of the Bitterroots, with large windows and a breathtaking view of Ward Mountain.

The house is surrounded by natural meadow to the west and north. An aspen stand shimmers close by to the south, providing shade in summer and allowing sun through in winter, when the leaves are off. The closest pine tree is about 25 feet away.

The white-barked aspen act as a fuel break, because they don't burn easily. The natural grass beneath the trees encourages fire to burn slowly, on the ground. The pine tree has no branches lower than 10 feet high. In most conditions, it wouldn't move fire from the ground to the crown.

click to enlarge COVER PHOTO BY JOE WESTON
  • cover photo by Joe Weston

"We are living in a pretty fire-defensible space," Campbell said, and he credits the open space with saving his home from the damage that many of his neighbors' homes suffered that summer.

That morning was hot and calm at Judd Creek Hollow, a couple of miles up Roaring Lion Road southwest of Hamilton. But the afternoon was unusual.

After their woodshed work was done, Campbell and Poe went inside to relax in the air-conditioning. At 2:30, while they sat in the living room, looking out the windows, Campbell noticed an orange glow cresting Ward Mountain. Stepping onto the porch, he realized there was a fire in the Roaring Lion drainage.

The couple drove to Highway 93, at the bottom of Roaring Lion Road, for a better view. Campbell could see it was going to be serious. It had only just been discovered, and it was already out of control.

Four days earlier, four teenagers had built a campfire on a small bluff near Roaring Lion Creek. The teens thought they had extinguished their fire, but investigators say they had not. Their trial on felony and misdemeanor negligent arson charges, recently rescheduled for September, will determine whether they will be held accountable for the $11 million cost of fighting the blaze, which claimed 16 homes and about 50 outbuildings, burned about 13 square miles and necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of people, one of whom died of cardiac arrest in the process. Nine helicopters and 735 personnel were deployed to fight the fire.

Climate change is producing conditions ripe for more, and more severe, wildfire. Snowpack is melting earlier and, in most Western states, an increasing percentage of winter precipitation is falling as rain. Summer temperatures are rising, and the number of extremely hot days is increasing. These conditions lead to an increase in the number of days where forests are dry and ready to burn. And when they do burn, climate scientists predict, they will burn—like the Roaring Lion fire—very hot and very fast.

July 31 started out like many mornings for Bret Lewis, the district assistant fire management officer for the West Fork Ranger District on the Bitterroot National Forest: physical training and briefings for his crews. Conditions were predicted to be hot and dry with strong winds out of the west. All the ingredients for a large fire were in place.

At 2:30 p.m., Lewis received a phone call from Bitterroot dispatch asking if he would take command of an emerging fire on the Darby Ranger District. He accepted.

Lewis worked in a unified command, allowing him to focus on Hotshot crews, bulldozers and air support while a local fire chief focused on fire engines, home protection and residential evacuation.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOE WESTON
  • photo by Joe Weston

After getting briefed by the dispatcher, Lewis gathered his gear and headed for the fire. "I was told the fire was quickly exceeding the forest's initial attack capability," he said. It was growing too complicated, and too fast, for the local crews to handle.

As Lewis made his way north on Highway 93, he got his first good look at the fire. He noticed a dark column, which indicated a fast-growing crown fire. The fire was moving down the south flank of the Roaring Lion drainage. He could see flames reaching more than 200 feet in the air. Winds were pushing the smoke column east across the valley. That told Lewis the fire would spot to the south and east of the main front.

"Our first priority is the safety of the public and the firefighters," Lewis said. "From the fire behavior I observed at this time, I knew we would not be able to attack directly with ground resources. The first mission was to ensure evacuations of the public were completed."

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