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

Montana Wildfire Roundup for August 1, 2017

Northern Rockies IMT
Lolo Peak Fire

There are multiple evacuation warnings due to fires in northwest Montana, and at least one mandatory evacuation order in effect.

About 4:00 this afternoon the Missoula County Sheriff’s office issued an evacuation warning due to the Lolo Peak Fire.

The evacuation warning area for the Lolo Peak Fire is for approximately 70 residents on the south side of Highway 12 from Elk Meadows Rd. to Fort Fizzle, including Mill Creek.

"We ask people to start planning, start preparing if you have livestock, if you have, maybe a family member with special needs that you start planning for that activity," says Brenda Bassett with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s office says the Lolo Peak fire has established itself on the North side of Lantern Ridge, and that fire crews are aware and are monitoring the situation.

There is also an evacuation warning for the Rice Ridge fire area near Seeley Lake.

The evacuation warning was issued this morning to residents on both sides of Highway 83 south of Rice Ridge Road and immediately south of Cottonwood Lakes Road.

All residents should be ready with an evacuation plan.

"They are building some good containment lines, but if the winds pick up, it can blow lighted embers half a mile, and sometimes even further if it's a real strong wind. We're not expecting that kind of wind, but just want people to be aware and be prepared should the fire go further than they want it to," says Gaberielle Kenton, a public information officer on the Rice Ridge fire.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has closed Seeley Lake to all recreation including fishing so that aircraft crews can safely operate as they dip water from the lake to fight the Rice Ridge Fire.

The Granite County Sheriff’s Department has issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents in the Moose Lake area south of Philipsburg due to the Meyers and Whetstone Fires. Now is the time to leave in an orderly fashion.

Jeannette Dreadfulwater, a public information officer for the fires, says law enforcement officers spent the afternoon alerting area residents about the mandatory evacuation.

"We've been working to get that info to those folks so they can evacuate in a safe and orderly fashion. Our number one priority is public, firefighter and aviation safety."

82 structures are threatened by the fire but not all of those are homes. Sprinklers and other structure defenses are already in place for most residences. Officials are working to establish a shelter space.

Today was a critical weather day, with windy conditions leading to active fire behavior.

Frog Pond Basin and the Copper Creek Campground remain evacuated and closed since Monday night.

There will be a community meeting about the Meyers Whetstone Fires at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at the Granite High School cafeteria in Philipsburg.

Granite County Sheriff has issued the following evacuation orders for the Rock Creek Drainage:

Mandatory evacuation from Hogback Homestead south to the Kyle Bohrnsen Memorial Bridge.

Pre-evacuation from Hogback Homestead north to Butte Cabin. Residents leaving this area are advised to exit north on Rock Creek Road.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office has issued a new evacuation order for the Upper Stonewall area due to the Park and Arrastra Creek fires outside Lincoln.

The order affects 5 to 8 residences.

Unfavorable wind conditions in the area picked up at 5 p.m., causing increased fire behavior and a spot on the west side of the handline at Park Creek.

"As a result of that activity, in that area, we have worked with the sheriff's office who has ordered an evacuation of the upper Stonewall area," says Terina Goichoechea is the public information officer on the fires.

The fire is on state land. Dozers, engines, crews and helicopters are attacking the spot to corral it.

The area is currently under a Red Flag Warning. Crews are expecting stronger winds through the evening.

Updated 1:20 p.m.

The Sunrise Fire between Alberton and Superior has now chewed through more than 9,900 acres. That’s almost 2,000 acres more than reported Monday. The Sunrise is estimated to be 5 percent contained.

After the smoke inversion lifted late Monday afternoon, fire activity increased. Crews were successful during the day and overnight using firing operations to control and check fire spread. Late in the evening, fire managers recognized that the fire condition was rapidly changing. They made a quick decision to respond appropriately to the evolving situation and crews burned around structures at risk to protect them. Night shift crews patrolled neighborhoods, searching for and suppressing hot spots. No new hot spots have been reported.

A strong inversion will keep smoke in the area longer today. The inversion will act as a “lid” on the fire and will keep fire behavior low. Visibility along I-90 will be less than 1 mile throughout the day between Tarkio and Superior. When the inversion lifts later this afternoon, fire activity is expected to increase.

As conditions allow, crews will use limited burning to reduce fuels along the Verde Saddle down to the Sunrise Creek area and in the Quartz Peak area. Structure protection assessments continue in the Rivulet, Forest Grove and Lozeau areas. Crews will patrol communities on both sides of I-90 for spot fires.

A public meeting is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, August 2, at Lozeau Lodge.

The Liberty Fire on the Flathead Reservation southeast of Arlee has grown to just over 2,500 acres with zero percent containment. With lighter winds, the fire slowed its eastward movement yesterday as it reached lighter fuels in the 2003 Boles Meadow burn scar. Yesterday’s growth was primarily on the southern flank of the fire. Today’s priority is to keep the fire west of the Boles Meadow scar and away from Placid Lake. Ground crews will be focused on the eastern flank while additional containment lines are scouted on the south flank. Containment lines on the north and west flank will be improved and additional contingency lines well be constructed as resources become available.

A Type-1 incident management team assumed control of the Liberty Fire last night.

A Red Flag Warning has been issued for the Lolo Peak Fire area from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. today. The Lolo Peak Fire has burned just over 5,700 acres in rugged country just over 10 miles southwest of the community of Lolo.

Temperatures will be in the mid-90s today. Tonight through Wednesday morning a front is expected to move through the fire area. Ahead of this front the wind, possibly with gusts to 30 mph, is expected to produce active fire behavior, especially in the Lantern Creek, South Fork Lolo Creek and Dick Creek drainages. After the front moves through, winds are expected to turn northeasterly until Friday when winds return to a westerly flow.

A clear, sunny day with temperatures in the low 90s made for an active fire day Monday. The fire on the east side of the South Fork Lolo Creek, where it intersects with Lantern Creek, pushed to the top of the ridge in the afternoon. No spots have been detected over the ridge. On the west side of South Fork Lolo Creek near the ridge line the fire made a one mile run north towards Dick Creek. Aerial ignition was again used on the southern perimeter to limit fire spread to the south. Crews using bulldozers are completing plowing a primary control line along the Highway 93 corridor. Firefighters are also scouting alternate lines.

Retardant will continue to be used to limit the fire’s spread west. Aerial ignition will be evaluated for use on both the east and west side of South Fork Lolo Creek to limit southern growth and keep the fire west of the Bitterroot Divide. Crews have completed 25.5 miles of control line between the fire and homes, along the Highway 12 and Highway 93 corridors. Alternate lines are being identified and constructed. Excavators, wood chippers, and dump trucks will work removing slash piles next to the control line. Firefighters and heavy equipment will work west of the fire along the Elk Meadows Road.

A public meeting on the Lolo Creek fire is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Thursday, August 3, at the Florence Baptist Church.

The Sapphire Complex of fires burning roughly 25 miles south-southeast of Missoula is made up of three fires. The largest of them, the Goat Creek Fire, has burned 6,676 acres and is 35 percent contained. Yesterday, the fire was most active in the Babcock Creek and Burnt Mountain areas. Firing operations were completed along Brewster Creek Road to secure fire line near structures. On the east side of Rock Creek Road, firing operations have been progressing and will continue as weather allows. Fire crews will be working towards the north-northwest side of the fire constructing direct and indirect containment line.

The 5,306-acre Little Hogback Fire is not contained. A heavy equipment task force will continue to construct and improve indirect fire line, averaging a half-mile a day. Structure assessment and preparation continues on the southeast side of the fire. Additional road systems are being assessed for possible indirect line.

The Sliderock Fire is reportedly five percent contained. Firefighters and aerial resources were successful in holding yesterday’s firing operations to assist in securing the fire perimeter. Aviation resources will continue to keep existing lines in check, while hand crews continue to construct hand line on the north-northeast perimeter of the fire.

There will be a public meeting today, August 1, at 7:00 p.m. at Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile to discuss the Sapphire Complex.

Updated 12:00 P.M.

Extreme fire behavior yesterday on the Rice Ridge fire northwest of Seeley Lake has led to an evacuation warning being issued to residents on both sides of Highway 83 south of Rice Ridge Road and immediately south of Cottonwood Lakes Road east of Highway 83. Law enforcement is notifying affected residents.  This is the time for final preparation and to move people who need extra time to leave the area. As of early this morning the Rice Ridge fire has burned nearly 4-thousand acres and reached to within two miles of Cottonwood Lake Road and to within 4 miles of Highway 83. Winds will blow through the night and all Seeley Lake area residents should be ready with an evacuation plan. 

Air quality is the big concern today. Simply put, it's really lousy in some areas. Air quality is currently 'Hazardous' in Seeley Lake. That means everyone - healthy or not - should limit or even avoid outdoor exertion and stay indoors when possible. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heart or lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their healthcare provider. The Missoula Health Department says Seeley is getting swamped by smoke from the Rice Ridge Fire. Between that blaze and the Liberty Fire near Arlee, air quality specialist Sarah Coefield says, "Seeley may be in for the long haul." 

Rock Creek air quality is 'Unhealthy' this morning. That means the elderly, very young and people with heart or lung disease should avoid heavy or prolonged exertion and limit their time outdoors. 

Missoula's air appears to be really bad, but Coefield says it looks and smells worse than it really is. Air quality in Missoula, Frenchtown and Lolo is currently 'Moderate'. Even though particulate concentrations aren't as high as Seeley Lake's, the volatile organic chemicals in the smoke may be causing your headaches, upset stomachs and general malaise. Coefield says the inbound cold front might just clear the smoke out of the Missoula Valley for tonight and tomorrow - but no promises. 

Fire teams across the state today are bracing for a rather unusual cold front that's expected to stir up winds later this afternoon. That wind could agitate Montana's already grim wildfire situation.  

National Weather Service Hydrologist Ray Nickless tells MTPR this inbound system is typically called a 'backdoor' cold front. This time of year cold fronts typically enter Montana from the northwest. Nickless says this one is dropping out of Canada and moving east to west across the Continental Divide - hence the 'backdoor' prefix.

So, what's this have to do with Montana's wildfires? The system is expected to reach western Montana by late Tuesday afternoon. Forecasters also say it's going to bring some gusty northeasterly winds with it. Wind speeds will vary depending on location, but could range from 10 to 20 mph, gusting to 30 mph at times. That's why a Red Flag Warning is posted from 6 p.m. this evening through 6 a.m. Wednesday. That warning basically covers the area stretching from Glacier National Park, along the Continental Divide, into Missoula and east to Drummond.  This is a dry cold front, meaning temperatures will moderate into the upper 80's to low 90's, but don't get your hopes up for any rain, much less higher humidity.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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