Crews are building miles of fire breaks to stop the blaze from spreading. (MTN News photo)

LOLO – It’s a huge undertaking, but fire managers say they’re making good progress “boxing in” the Lolo Peak Wildfire with miles of control lines. It’s the only approach in the standoff with a fire totally inaccessible to firefighters on the ground.

Ever since the Lolo Peak Fire was sparked by lightning a couple of weeks ago, fire managers have been forced to watch the backcountry blaze grow — and keep growing — moving it closer and closer to homes in the Lolo Creek Valley and along the Northern Bitterroot Mountain Front.

“We don’t have the ability to go up close to the fire and take any action. It’s really steep. It’s really rocky. It’s remote and the fuels up there are super dense,” said Rick Miller, an operations section chief with the Type I Incident Management Team that’s heading up the crash against the blaze.

“So it’s just a really bad place for us to even think about putting firefighters. It’s not safe. If someone was to get hurt it would take a phenomenally long time to get them out of there. It’s just not a place we want to put firefighters,” Miller added.

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Now, just days after coming up with the plan, crews with Greg Poncin’s Northern Rockies Team are literally drawing a “line through the trees,” prepping for the possibility of the fire roaring down off the peaks.

“That helps us get the engines in some of these much more remote areas, said IMT Division Group Supervisor John Shotzberger.

The “shaded fire breaks” are being cut from Elk Meadows, east to Lolo and then down the foothills where they’ll tie into an old burn on Bass Creek south of Florence. Some parts are new trails while other sections improve gaps already running through the forest. And in other spots, crews can use existing roads for more control lines. But they’re effectively tripling that defensible space.

By removing the smaller, “re-gen” growth, fire managers say they’ll remove the “ladder fuels” which could allow the blaze to climb into larger trees if it gets this far. It’s also a place to run backfires, “stealing” the fuel the fire craves.

“Anything we can do to try and expedite trying to get a good defensible fire line around these homes,” Shotzberger said.

Most of the control lines are crossing private lands, but once this emergency is over, it will leave space that could be critical in future fire seasons.

“So we’re trying to do the best job we can with each individual landowner. It takes a while to go through and make that, but I think people understand a lot better what we’re trying to do up here and cooperate and get the best job done we can,” Shotzberger said.

Fire crews are continuing to use aerial water drops to snuff spot fires, working to keep the fire from crossing ridge lines. The blaze has burned burned over 2,900 acres as of Thursday.

Dennis Bragg reporting for MTN