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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Montana Wildfire Roundup For July 31, 2017

In the Whetstone Ridge Fire area in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest
In the Whetstone Ridge Fire area in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest

Updated 6:20 p.m.

The Sunrise Fire between Alberton and Superior grew by about 2,000 acres yesterday. It’s now burning an estimated 8,200 acres and is about 5 percent contained.

Early Sunday evening the Mineral County Sheriff issued an early-evening evacuation order for residents in the Verde Creek area. The Quartz Creek, Sunrise Creek and Quartz Flats areas were evacuated last week.

Public information officer Megan Nemitz says smoke is creating additional challenges, but that crews have been able to make some progress protecting the roughly 80 structures under threat.

“They have all that in place and they have a worked a lot of dozer line in and they’ve also used water and retardant in the places where they think will be most effective and slow the fire’s growth.”

Despite this, Nemitz says hot and dry conditions will continue to aid fire growth.

“Even though we are going to have a little bit lower winds, fire activity is supposed to increase and as it hits really heavy pockets of fuel, we’ll see some fire activity there.”

There’s been significant growth on the Rice Ridge fire northwest of the town of Seeley Lake.
Gabrielle Kenton is a public information officer for that fire.

"The weather has been pretty much the same as yesterday. We saw a lot of fire growth yesterday, and it looks like there’s a pretty good plume today. Yesterday we went from about 60 acres to about 1,100 acres.

Yesterday’s fire growth was mostly to the north and east, Kenton said. That’s away from Seeley Lake and towards the Bob Marshall Wilderness. She said she believed the wind has been roughly the same direction today.

Fire managers will give an update on the Rice Ridge fire, and others in the area, at Seeley Lake Elementary School tonight starting at 6 p.m.

Planned burnout operations on the Park Creek fire, 2 miles North of Lincoln, are going as planned. Helicopters are providing support with water bucket drops to cool the hot spots and to pre-treat areas yet to burn on the south and southeast edges of the 4,100 acre fire.

Operations Section Chief Kevin Smith said the operations are progressing well.

All burning is interior to the constructed fuel break and large columns of smoke are visible in that area.

As the Lolo Peak fire continues to burn on national forest land, crews have bulldozed about two-thirds of the control line intended to protect homes and communities from the fire. Once completed, the 30 mile line will stretch from west of the town of Lolo, to south of Florence.

Spokesperson Dixie Dies says they have 9 miles to go.

“They are making their way down. As we speak, it’s coming down Highway 93,” Dies says.

In addition to the 12-food wide bulldozed control line where Lolo Peak’s slope meets the valley floor, crews are also clearing brush, trees and other fuel immediately adjacent to the line to enhance the fire break.

Approximately 900 homeowners have been contacted to assess their property for structure protection.

Dies recommends residents enroll in automated reverse 911 alerts from Missoula and Ravalli Counties. Those are free service which will give updates if there are evacuations.

The Liberty fire that started on the Flathead Reservation southeast of Arlee has now grown to around 2,000 acres. It’s now moved beyond reservation boundaries and onto the Lolo National Forest.

A California Interagency Incident Management Team will be transitioning into management of the Liberty Fire at 8 p.m. tonight.

Up until now, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have been managing the fire, which lightning started on July 15.

Fire managers say the Liberty fire has been exhibiting extreme fire behavior, with long range spotting, group tree torching and uphill runs.

There are currently 111 people working on the Liberty Fire, including crews constructing fire lines by hand. 

Update 1:42 p.m.

The Missoula County Sheriff's Office issued a pre-evacuation warning to 170 residences on Shining Shirt Road and Beaver Creek Road in the North and South Placid Lake area, due to the Liberty Fire. The fire 17 miles southeast of Arlee in the South Fork Primitive area now has a page on the InciWeb site. It is estimated at 1,100 acres.

A type one incident management team is scheduled to take over management of it at 8:00 pm tonight.

Fire managers characterize this fire’s behavior as “extreme,” with long range spotting, uphill runs and group torching. Today they say there is a “very high change for extreme fire behavior.”A Type 1 Incident Management team is scheduled to take over management of the Liberty Fire this fire this morning.

This map was made public about 1pm Monday, July 31
Credit InciWeb
This map was made public about 1pm Monday, July 31

The Liberty Fire swelled to roughly 600 acres Sunday afternoon when the fire made an aggressive run and jumped containment lines built by the Tribal Division of Fire. Fire managers say aviation resources were scarce and the fire quickly spread into the forest’s crown. The fire was sending ash as far as Lincoln.

Last night the Mineral County Sheriff's Office issued a Stage 3 evacuation order last night for residents along Verde Creek due to the Sunrise Fire.

Phil Sneed, a public information officer for the fire, says the fire made an aggressive run Sunday night to the Verde Saddle…

“And Verde Saddle specifically was the trigger point for initiating the stage three evacuation for that area,” Sneed said.

People in Sunrise Creek, Quartz Flats and Quartz Creek also remain under an evacuation order. Residents of the Rivulet Area should be on the alert for fire activity.

The Red Cross Shelter at the Superior High School will be open if a need exists.

Sneed says motorists along I-90 between Tarkio and Superior should be prepared for thick smoke and poor visibility this morning.

“We encourage them to slow down, be vigilant and definitely don't stop. Just keep on going and be aware there could be smoke in the area,” Sneed said.

Fire managers say that today, “Day operations will assess the fire perimeter and take controlling action as feasible.”

They are predicting, “active fire behavior,” and say, “Fire growth to the north, east, and south threatening structures in Quartz Creek, Quartz Flats, and Sunrise. With high pressure in place, the week is expected to be above average- hot and dry. Record hot and dry conditions are predicted for the extended forecast. Poor relative humidity recovery, leading to increased fire behavior and continued fire perimeter growth. No significant precipitation is forecast.”

On the Lolo Peak Fire Sunday, fire managers say periodic cloud cover kept fire activity minimal until late afternoon.

Heavy equipment in the Highway 93 corridor are nearing completion on the primary control line. Hot Shot crews will complete the work with hand lines.

Two heavy helicopters dropped retardant to reinforce Saturday’s work along the ridge on the west side of South Fork Lolo Creek. In late afternoon, helicopters dropped water on new spots that were identified on the ridge south of Lolo Peak. To date 60,000 gallons of water and 86,000 gallons of retardant have been dropped on the fire.

This morning’s fire update says, “we are continuing preparation to protect the valley and its residents as well as our firefighters. Supporting that objective, approximately 900 homeowners have been contacted to assess their property for structure protection. Based on historical knowledge of fire behavior in this immediate area, and where this fire has the potential to move, 21 miles of control line between homes and the fire has been completed along the Highway 12 and Hwy 93 corridor. Construction of control line continues south along Highway 93.

“The majority of this control line is approximately 100 feet wide, consisting of a 12 feet wide dozer line down to mineral soil adjacent to 90 feet of a “shaded” fuel break. Construction of this fuel break consisted of removing dense stands of small trees and brush and the lower limbs of larger trees. The fuel break is intended to reduce the intensity of the fire as it approaches the dozer line.

“Alternate fire lines between the fire and the control line are also being constructed. Some of the line locations will use preexisting open and closed roads while others will be constructed with heavy equipment and incorporate natural features (rock slopes, etc.). To reduce the intensity and impact of fire and keep it off private land, these lines will be used to fight the fire before it moves closer to the control line.”

More information on the Lolo Peak Fire is available at the Firewise trailer, located on the eastside of the intersection of Hwy 12 and Hwy 93 or the Florence-Carlton School for current information.

“Fire managers will monitor the fire’s behavior along the ridge on the west side of South Fork Lolo Creek to reduce northwesterly growth. Aerial ignition will continue along southern edge of the fire as needed to inhibit an organized fire run toward the Bitterroot divide. Excavators, wood chippers, and dump trucks will work in the Elk Meadow area and along the Highway 12 corridor to remove slash piles next to the fire line. Crews will conclude the installation of sprinklers, hose and portable water tanks near homes as well as staging equipment along the Highway 12 corridor. 

“Hotter and drier weather is forecast for next week. Fire behavior predictions indicate the fire will move north and cross Lantern Ridge. The prevailing winds from the west southwest will push the fire northeast toward the valley and Highway 12. We are focusing our efforts with this in mind and have staged our resources appropriately to meet this challenge. We continue to work closely with our cooperators, keeping public and firefighter safety our top priority.”

There will be a public meeting this evening at 6:00 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Elementary School. Fire operations managers and other specialists will provide information on the Rice Ridge Fire as well as the status of some other fires in the vicinity.

Higher temperatures, lower humidity, and increased winds caused the Rice Ridge Fire to become very active yesterday afternoon. It burned toward the southeast and created a large plume of smoke to the east of Seeley Lake. The fire is currently not threatening any homes or communities.

Fire operations are aimed at building and maintaining control and containment lines to keep the fire from moving to the south and west where there are homes and communities.

Fire managers are closely monitoring fuels and weather conditions and the public would be notified should any pre-evacuation or evacuation orders be issued. At all times it is a good idea for the public to have plans for what they would need to prepare should the need to evacuate arise.

Weather conditions today are expected to be much the same as yesterday and fire activity is expected to be high. Smoke will continue to be visible throughout the day, generally increasing in the afternoon, with additional smoke visible in town from other fires in the region, including the Liberty Fire just to the west on Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal lands.

A fire closure order went into effect on Tuesday, July 25. It restricts public access to roads, trails, and areas in the vicinity of the fire for public safety reasons. Today the closure area will be increased to include additional lands around the fire. 

On Wednesday the Lolo National Forest went into Stage 2 fire restrictions. Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire or campfire is prohibited. For more information on fire restrictions, go to

On the Park Creek Fire two miles north of Lincoln, fire managers say that “night patrols successfully worked two hot spots off the southwest edge of Park Creek Road.

“As predicted, the afternoon weather spurred a lot of activity with hot, dry, and gusty conditions. Crews picked up six spots off the southeast corner of the fire, but were able to get them under control quickly with the assistance of helicopter water bucket drops.

“Air tankers made several retardant drops on the Park Creek Fire along Sucker Creek Road slowing the progression in the southeast corner. There are areas of heat within the Liverpool and Keep Cool Creek drainages that crews worked into the afternoon.

“Smoke from other fires to the west shaded the Lincoln District and decreased fire activity in the late afternoon. The plans for further burnout operations were abandoned due to unfavorable weather conditions. All the clipping operations on Stonewall Road are now complete.

“Crews last night were looking for hot spots along the fuel break. While doing so, they encountered a number of burning logs rolling off the hill and successfully engaged them. Today the crews will continue their vigilance to mitigate these rolling logs and to engage any more spot fires that occur.

Tomorrow’s weather is again calling for extreme fire conditions, with much the same of what was experienced today. These conditions are expected through the early part of the week.”

A mile-and-a-half west of the Park Creek Fire, the Arrastra Creek Fire saw its western edge back down into the Arrastra Creek. Plans for further burnout operations were abandoned due to unfavorable weather conditions. Crews focused on controlling the backing fires near the road while keeping a close eye on the backing fire moving toward the creek. Heavy equipment continued removing material cleared out from the Lincoln Ditch Road.

Crews will continue to monitor and hold the control lines with a special emphasis on the west edge where it is moving closer to Arrastra Creek and the lower Klondike drainage as it approaches the fuel break. Heavy equipment operators will continue removing material gathered from the cleanup of the Lincoln Ditch Road.

The Alice Creek Fire sixteen miles northeast of Lincoln is now estimated at 46 acres, which is a reduction in acreage due to more accurate mapping.

A crew and local firefighters from the Lincoln Ranger District, assisted by helicopters, are working on the fire. Total personnel is 26.

Yesterday, crews continued to methodically build control lines along the northern edge of the fire. The majority of the fire activity today resulted from the burning of interior fuels. One helicopter assisted the ground crew with water bucket droops. The crew is still spike camping in the fire’s vicinity to maximize their shifts.

Today firefighters will continue with handline construction on the northern edge of the fire, aided by helicopter water bucket drops to keep areas of heat in check.

The largest fire on the Sapphire Complex, the Goat Creek Fire, at 6,142 acres is now 35 percent contained. Fire activity increased mid-afternoon yesterday as temperatures and terrain driven winds increased. Smoke was visible when grassy fuels within the perimeter ignited. The windy conditions prevented crews from conducting firing operations to remove unburned fuels; however, crews will continue to assess for more favorable firing conditions today. Heavy equipment will work to improve indirect fireline north and east of the fire. Structure protection will continue along the Rock Creek and Brewster Creek roads and structure assessment efforts will begin south of Brewster Creek.

Also on the Sapphire Complex, the Little Hogback Fire is now 5,019 acres and zero percent contained. Structure assessment and protection measures are in place in the south Rock Creek drainage, Hogback and Morgan Case Homesteads. The fire was most active on the southwest heel of the fire yesterday. A heavy equipment task force will construct and improve indirect fire line today. Resources will assess conditions for conducting firing operations to remove unburned fuel and secure the perimeter.

The smallest fire on the Sapphire Complex, the Sliderock Fire is now 750 acres and five percent contained. The northeast edge of the fire was active yesterday afternoon although fire growth was minimal. Firefighters and aerial resources successfully conducted several firing operations in these areas to hold and improve fireline. Today, crews will assess locations for line construction east and north of the fire. Private lands in the Sliderock Fire are under mandatory evacuation notice.

Today winds will decrease across the Sapphire Complex fire area and are forecast to be 4-8 mph in the valleys and on the slopes. A ridge of high pressure building across the western United States will continue to bring hot and dry weather to the Sapphire Complex.

Tomorrow a type two team will take command of the Whetstone Ridge and Meyers Fires in southern Granite County. Together the fires total 3,438 acres.

Over the next few days, temperatures will be well above average and humidity recovery will be poor. An unstable air mass on Tuesday may create critical fire weather conditions.

Yesterday fire crews continued to make good progress on the fire line and shaded fuel break construction. Fire activity increased as expected with single tree torching, short range spotting and backing on both fires. Air resources dropped water on hot spots and were used for reconnaissance flights. A crew spike camp was established.

The team is constructing primary, contingency and emergency fire breaks. The focus of this effort is to protect private property, particularly on the east side of the fires.

The current total length of the fire break on both fires is: 1.5 mile of hand line, 6 miles of dozer line and 13 miles of shaded fuel break. This is 60% of the planned primary and contingency fire break. In addition direct line construction has started on the southwest side of Whetstone. The structure group has triaged/prepared 82 structures nearest the fire.

In Phillipsburg expect some morning haze until the inversion lifts around noon.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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