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

Montana Wildfire Roundup for August 3, 2017

Glowing sky above the Meyers Fire SW of Philipsburg

Missoula County Sheriff and Coroner T.J. McDermott released the name of the firefighter who was killed while working on the Lolo Peak Fire yesterday afternoon. The sheriff says 29 year old Brent M. Witham of Mentone, California was killed when a tree was being cut down, and fell on him.

Lolo National Forest Spokeswoman Pat York says exact details of Witham’s death are still unclear.

“Yeah, so that information we don’t know yet, but we’re trying to track that down as well, in terms of what exactly happened out there. And it was in conjunction with this fire fighting operation so we know that. That’s as much as I know. We have little bits of pieces here and there, and we just need to pull it together.”

York says Witham was with the Vista Grande Interagency HotShot crew and the San Bernarndino National Forest.

The Forest Service is conducting an investigation.

Witham was the second firefighter to die on the job in Montana in two weeks. Trenton Johnson of Missoula died on July 19 when a dead tree fell and hit him near Seeley Lake. Johnson was 19 years old.

There will be a community meeting about the Lolo Peak Fire tonight at 7 in Florence. It will be at the Florence Baptist church. The meeting will also be live streamed on the Bitterroot National Forest Facebook page.

As of this morning, the Lolo Peak fire was estimated at more than 6,500 acres in size. Fire managers say they’ve nearly completed enhancing the 30-mile bulldozed containment line stretching from west of Ft. Fizzle in the highway 12 corridor to south of Florence in the highway 93 corridor. The were expecting a quote, average, burn day today.

An Evacuation Warning remains in place for the area south of Highway 12 from Fort Fizzle west to the intersection with the Elk Meadows road; this includes the Mill Creek area. Fire officials are asking the public not to stop along highway 12 to view the fire.

And at 6 tonight there’s a public meeting in Seeley Lake about the Rice Ridge and Liberty Fires.

There will be an update on the current fires’ status, plans for the next several days of work as well as information on evacuation procedures should they become necessary.

The Mineral County Sheriff's Office lifted the Evacuation Order for Sunrise Creek and Quartz Flats early today.

Public Information Officer Megan Nemitz tells us that residents of those two areas are allowed to return to their homes.

"With what the fire has been doing, and as much work as the firefighters have put in around those homes in that area, they feel safe enough to let folks back in there,” Nemitz says.

The area remains in a Stage 2 Evacuation Warning status and residents are reminded to stay aware of changing conditions.

Updated 1:25 p.m.

While the fire danger across most of Montana ranges from ''Very High" to 'Extreme', firefighters are holding their own against most of the state's largest wildfires.

The 6,858-acre Rice Ridge Fire continues its active burn northeast of Seeley Lake. Though it still stands at zero-percent containment, fire teams Wednesday took advantage of the relatively calm weather to make progress where possible.

At 6 this morning, the Eastern Area Incident Command Team assumed command of the Rice Ridge. This Type 2 Incident management Team is led by Incident Commander Steve Goldman. A public meeting will be held tonight, August 3 at 6 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Elementary School Gymnasium. Representatives from the Rice Ridge Fire, the Liberty Fire and state and local government will provide an update on the current fire status, plans for the next several days of work as well as information on evacuation procedures should it become necessary.

Heavy aircraft presence yesterday on the south end of the Rice Ridge Fire slowed growth to the south and west. Fire crews on the ground were able to make progress in building control lines on the south side of the fire due to lower winds, and increased relative humidity resulting in a decrease in fire intensity. At mid-day on August 2 air operations over the fire had to be suspended due to a civilian flying a UAS or “drone” in the vicinity of Seeley Lake.

Flying a drone in the area of a wildland causes all firefighting aircraft to be grounded. It is a Federal offense to fly within a Temporary Flight Restriction zone. Other aircraft, including remote control aircraft, in the vicinity of firefighting aircraft pose a serious hazard. Firefighting aircraft cannot fly if drones or remote control aircraft are in the air. Do not fly such aircraft within the temporary flight restriction area.

Today’s objectives include building fireline on the south end of the fire, conducting structure protection work on properties to the south of the fire and along the Highway 83 corridor, improving on existing control lines and installing hose lines for future needs. Crews will continue to assess properties and prepare structure protection plans for the Highway 83 Corridor and the Town of Seeley Lake.

The evacuation warning issued to residents on both sides of Highway 83 south of Rice Ridge Road to Morrell Creek and south of Cottonwood Lakes Road east of Highway 83, including the town of Seeley Lake and Double Arrow Ranch is still in effect. No actual evacuations have been ordered.

Firefighters are mourning the death of one of their comrades who was killed Wednesday while working on the Lolo Peak Fire ten miles southwest of Lolo. That 6,542-acre fire continues burning in rugged country. Crews have completed almost 30 miles of control line between the fire and homes along the Highway 12 and Highway 93 corridors. Highway 12 remains open. No stopping along the road to view the fire activity.

A public meeting is scheduled for tonight, Thursday, August 3, Florence Baptist Church, 5561 Old Hwy 93, at 7:00 pm. The meeting will be live-streamed on the Bitterroot National Forest Facebook page and posted to the Lolo National Forest Facebook page after the meeting concludes.

Generally encouraging news from the stubborn Sapphire Complex 25 miles south/southeast of Missoula in the Rock Creek Drainage. Goat Creek Fire: 7,555 acres, 45 percent contained. Firefighters continued structure assessment and preparations along Brewster Creek and the north end of Rock Creek yesterday. Fire resources made good progress establishing direct line tying into roads on the northwest side of fire. Today, crews will continue to monitor structures as well as hold and patrol the line. Indirect fireline will continue to be constructed on the east side. Little Hogback Fire: 7,976 acres, 0 percent contained.

Yesterday, crews successfully completed firing operations to assist in securing the southwest side of the fire as well as around Hogback cabin. Crews constructed indirect line to the east and prepared structures in the area. Fire resources will continue to prep structures and provide protection in the Red and Yellow evacuation zones today. The heavy equipment taskforce continues to establish indirect line on the east side of fire.

Sliderock Fire: 823 acres, 20 percent contained. Firefighters worked to extend fire line down to existing trails and continue to secure fire lines on the south and east edges of the fire. Aircraft provided support to ground resources with aerial delivery of retardant. Fire resources will continue to hold the line today with assistance from aerial resources.

Resources Threatened: Private property and structures in the Rock Creek drainage are threatened. Other resources threatened include a Bonneville Power Administration powerline and a communication site.

Evacuations: The evacuation order for Stony Creek south to the Kyle G. Bohrnsen Memorial Bridge has been changed to Yellow. For the Sapphire Complex, the Granite County Sheriff has issued the following evacuation orders: Red evacuation order (mandatory evacuation) from Hogback Homestead south to Stony Creek and the Sliderock Mountain area; Yellow evacuation orders (pre-evacuation) for the northern portion of Rock Creek drainage from approximately Babcock Creek south to Bobcat Creek, from Butte Cabin south to Hogback Homestead, and from Stony Creek south to the Kyle G. Bohrnsen Memorial Bridge.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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