USA — Most wildfire seasons the big news is the amount of acreage burning, but Wednesday, the big news came down to one tree.
One huge, ancient tree.
The Alta Pine, likely the oldest ponderosa pine in Ravalli County and believed to be the second largest ponderosa pine in Montana, was discovered burning Wednesday in the Bitterroot National Forest.
A seedling during the European Crusades to the Holy Land and already a mature tree when Columbus discovered America, the Alta Pine was culturally significant to Salish Indians, whose ancestors marked it 500 years ago while establishing a trail through the area.
The 114-foot-tall tree with a circumference of more than 13 feet was burning from top to bottom, with the fire establishing itself in the hollow trunk, when discovered.
By mid-morning, the top half of the tree fell after burning through.
Ordinarily, we might cut a snag down that is on fire to prevent spread, said West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell, but in this case the tree is culturally significant. Also, because it was hollow, it would have been very difficult to cut safely.
The massive tree was killed by lightning on July 16, 1993, after surviving countless other strikes during its lifetime.
The tree was bored in 1976 and determined to be 800 years old at that time.
Painted Rocks Fire District firefighters were first on the scene, and were joined by West Fork Ranger District personnel. Forest Service helicopters dropped water on the tree and surrounding area to prevent the blaze from spreading, and the fire was limited to about half an acre.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Until it burned, it was predicted the tree would stand for a century after its death before falling.
If the tree was the biggest wildfire news Wednesday, rain was a close second.
Much of western Montana received precipitation, which helped clear up smoky skies and dampen some of the flames. The fire roundup:
n The Red Quill Fire in the Upper Woodchuck area outside Missoula is 95 percent contained, according to Cindy Super, fire prevention coordinator with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Nearly 50 firefighters spent the night working the 13-acre fire, mopping up hot spots and strengthening the containment line. The fire started when a landowner lost control of a fire on his property in the area.
There were several spots on the northeast side of the fire but the incident commander said those are looking really good this morning, Super said.
n The Triangle Peak Fire 10 miles northeast of Hungry Horse and two miles south of Highway 2 got good rain Wednesday.
A helicopter dropped water on the east side of the 315-acre wildfire, but otherwise officials were letting it burn, though watchful of predicted warmer temperatures by the weekend.
The Great Bear Creek Trail, trail No. 328, remains closed.
n The Purcell Summit Fire west of Koocanusa Reservoir on the Kootenai National Forest has burned 65 acres.
Its kind of out in the middle of nowhere, said fire information officer Willie Sykes. Theyre putting a lot of air attack on that fire.
Additionally, two Hotshot crews were on the scene Wednesday, and rain fell on the fire as well.
Theyre feeling pretty good about it, Sykes said.
n The Goose Gulch Fire 14 miles west of Hall on the Lolo National Forest, burning in stands of lodgepole pine, is 25 percent contained and limited to 2 acres.
n The Bear Gulch Fire 12 miles east of Townsend remained one of the most worrisome n at 750 acres, one of the largest burning in this otherwise quiet fire season, and zero percent contained.
More than 200 firefighters are assigned to Bear Gulch.