By Tyler Allen, Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer
BOZEMAN – As the bright red Raven II helicopter ascended to 750 feet above the airport tarmac Thursday afternoon, a massive column of smoke became visible above the mountains south of Bozeman.
“You couldn’t see that two hours ago,” said Mark Taylor, pilot and owner of Rocky Mountain Rotors. Taylor had been in the air earlier that afternoon, Aug. 30, on another flight surveying the 10,000-acre Millie Fire. The Temporary Flight Restrictions were scheduled to expand on Friday and this would be the last chance to fly so close to the fire without special clearance.
The Millie Fire is burning in rugged terrain between Bozeman, Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park, in the Gallatin National Forest. Currently, 75,000 acres are burning throughout Montana with three major fires burning 25,500 acres in southwest Montana. They are the Millie Fire (10,000 acres), the Pine Creek Fire (12,000 acres) and the 19 Mile Fire (4,000 acres) between Whitehall and Butte.
Caused by lightning, Forest Service officials detected the Millie Fire at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 28 during a routine survey flight. Smokejumpers were deployed that afternoon, and when the first four jumped from their delivery aircraft the fire was estimated at half an acre, said Incident Commander Dan Cottrell. Cottrell was in the plane, planning to be the last of eight to jump, but the final four were prevented from jumping because of erratic winds.
“By the time the four guys on the ground were able to collect their cargo and hike it a half mile to the fire [from the delivery site], the fire had grown to 20 acres,” Cottrell said. When they left a couple hours later it was burning 40 acres.
Flying from Bozeman up the mouth of Gallatin Canyon yesterday, we witnessed a very different scene than the smokejumpers did just two days prior. The Millie Fire had engulfed 10,000 acres of the Gallatin National Forest; as we hovered just west of the Storm Castle drainage we could see where it had spread rapidly east and northward the past two days. A dark grey column of smoke billowed off the ridge at what appeared to be the head of the South Cottonwood drainage.
Taylor flew the helicopter east past Garnet Mountain and the fire lookout perched on its summit, toward The Sentinel. As we caught an updraft to lift us barely 100 feet over the ridge, we watched four mountain goats make their way south on the Gallatin Divide Trail, away from the spreading fire.
We looked out on a lattice of high alpine ridges, burning, smoldering or vulernable with their swaths of beetle-killed timber.
The northern half of Paradise Valley was hardly visible, clogged with the smoke of the now 12,000-acre Pine Creek Fire. That fire had already destroyed five homes and caused the evacuation of 70 people in the town of Pine Creek.
We flew north, over the eastern flank of Hyalite Peak. Its summit was silhouetted a few hundred feet above us, and the details of its massive summit cone were hardly discernible with the late afternoon sun and swirling smoke behind it. We flew a couple of circles around the head of Hyalite Canyon before descending toward the reservoir. One of the busiest recreational areas in Montana was eerily tranquil. Closed because of the threatening wildfire, there wasn’t a car, canoe, bicyclist, or single human in sight.
Our hour in the air was up, and Taylor accelerated the helicopter down the canyon, away from Bozeman’s burning backyard.