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

Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 9, 2017

A plane flies over the Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake, MT, August 8, 2017.
Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake

The Missoula City-County Health Department is now recommending that people in Seeley Lake who are able to do so leave the area until the wildfire smoke event passes.

Recent air monitoring readings show record levels of harmful wildfire smoke in Seeley Lake, the department says, adding that even indoor air is not safe.

Sarah Coefield is an air quality specialist with the health department.  

“It’s like Bejing on a bad day.  The smoke we are seeing in Seeley Lake is incredibly bad.”

The health department says every resident is at risk of serious health effects - particularly those who are vulnerable to particulate pollution.  Health effects can include reduced lung function, heart attack and stroke.

The recommendations are for everyone, but they are especially important for groups with higher health risk from breathing smoke: infants, children, pregnant women, people with asthma, lung or heart disease, and everyone 65 and older.

The Red Cross has set up a shelter in the Potomac Greenough Community Center, Anyone interested in staying at the shelter may call the Red Cross of Montana at 1-800-272-6668. The shelter is on standby, so people must call before they arrive, That number, once again is 800-272-6668

If people cannot leave the area, the health department recommends making the air in a home cleaner by using a HEPA air filter.

A 76-person incident management team is now in charge of the Gibralter Ridge Fire east of Eureka. That lightning-sparked fire blew up Monday night, forcing residents of about 30 homes to flee in the pre-dawn hours.

A flyover with infra-red mapping equipment now puts the fire at 1,133 acres. Firefighting aircraft have been attacking the fire today.

The same lightning storm that started Gibralter Ridge sparked at least seven small fires inside Glacier National Park. Park Spokeswoman  Lauren Alley says that as of this morning all of them were a quarter acre or less in size.

"Two are controlled, one is contained, and we’re working on the rest of them."

There are new evacuations for the Sunrise Fire, which is burning about 14,500 acres between Superior and Alberton.

The Mineral County Sheriff this morning ordered 10 residences in Cougar Creek to evacuate. Already under evacuation are Quartz Creek and sections of Verde Creek.  

Public information officer working on on the fire Denny McCarthy says the total number of structures threatened by to the fire to 96.

Public information officer Denny McCarthy also says winds continue to push the Sunrise fire west, which will likely result in more evacuations.

“The expectation is that this fire may burn to Idaho. So I think you can see the same thing happen to Trout Creek in the coming days if not the next week or two  that you saw happen to Cougar Creek today.”

Governor Steve Bullock visited the fire’s camp today with a team for a quick briefing.

Fire managers will host a community meeting tonight at 7 at the Lozeau Lodge Pavilion just south of Superior to update local residents about fire containment plans. 

Grave Creek Road (Forest Service Rd 114) is closed at the junction of Foothills Road and Grave Creek. Traffic to and from the Flathead National Forest on this road is not permitted. We also ask everyone to, please, limit traffic along the roadways in the area to allow emergency responders and firefighters safe access to the fire.

Thunderstorms expected for the next two days have put fire management teams across western Montana on high alert as they prepare for strong winds. For the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires burning just outside Lincoln that means crews are closely monitoring the fires for significant heat and spotting throughout the day and overnight.

Matt Conklin is incident commander on the Park Creek fire.

“And it’s 40 percent contained. We got about 60 percent of the actual line put in. The fire just hasn’t quite burnt to it yet, but that’s our intended control line and we feel that we’re going to have a good probability of success in holding it in those control lines.”

Several isolated pockets of fuel continue to burn inside the control lines producing smoke that can be seen in Lincoln and surrounding communities. No evacuations are currently in place.

Updated 1:26 p.m.

The Sapphire Complex, 25 miles south/southeast of Missoula in the Rock Creek drainage is at 27,528 acres and 32-percent containment.

Rock Creek Road from I-90 south to Harry’s Flat reopened early this morning. If new or increased fire activity occurs, the road closure will be reevaluated.

The Sapphire is made up of three fires, the largest of which is the 18,612 acre Little Hogback, which is 7-percent contained. It received some assistance on its southeast perimeter this week from a very big friend nicknamed VLAT. That’s a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker. The VLAT dropped three miles of line in three drops and combined aerial resources applied 32,000 gallons of retardant in an effort to protect private land. Firing operations and structure protection continue near the Hogback Homestead in the southwest fire area.

The noose is tightening around the 8,056 acre Little Goat Fire which is now 75-percent contained. Fire resources patrolled along the Rock Creek and Brewster Creek roads yesterday. They will continue to monitor the fire in these areas and remove hose from secure structures. Fire crews successfully completed burning operations along Spring Creek Road to mitigate fire growth to the east.

30-percent containment now reported on the 860-acre Sliderock Fire. Crews continue to monitor and hold the fire line on the south and southeast flanks while aerial resources continue to work the north end. Indirect line east of the fire is expected to improve today.

The 13, 236 acre Meyers Fire is burning about 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg and is now 4-percent contained. It did not show significant growth Tuesday but fire activity did increase in the afternoon as smoke cleared out and fuels that were exposed to more sunlight began drying.

Helicopters, including a Montana Air National Guard Chinook, were used to drop water on hot spots in the afternoon while visibility allowed.

Today’s plan calls for utilizing hand crews and heavy equipment to continue constructing and widening contingency lines on the north and east sides of the fire, and north of the East Fork Reservoir utilizing existing roads and trails where possible. The Frog Pond Basin, Copper Creek Campground and Moose Lake Areas remain closed.

The 4, 231 acre Liberty Fire southeast of Arlee is now 90-percent contained. Tonight the fire is expected  to back and flank into the early evening with isolated torching. Humidity isn't expected to be very high tonight so this activity will continue later into the evening.  Changes in the weather forecast will lead to less active fire behavior, perhaps starting as early as tomorrow. Smoldering and creeping fire with isolated torching is expected to continue. Winds could increase fire activity but this activity could be mitigated if the 10% chance of wetting rain materializes over the fire. The fire will be most active in the South Fork of the Jocko River/Gold Creek divide area.

Updated 11:30

The Lolo Peak Fire ten miles southwest of Lolo now clocks in at 7,453-acres. Fire managers believe it has the potential to reach the corridors of Highway 12 And Highway 93. Miles of containment line have been dug along both roads to prepare for that possibility. 

Moderate fire spread is expected today and tomorrow with lower daytime relative humidity levels and poor nighttime recovery. The burn period window is increasing and there’s the potential for new lightning starts and gusty winds. After 72 hours there is potential for active to extreme fire behavior due to a possible critical fire weather pattern over the weekend.

There is a community fire information briefing scheduled for Thursday August 10 at 7:00 p.m. in the Lolo Community Center. Fire officials will provide a briefing about weather, fire behavior and operations on the Lolo Peak Fire.

Seeley Lake’s Rice Ridge Fire saw moderate fire activity yesterday along its northwest flank, but a bit more growth on its east. Planes and helicopters put on a real air show as they worked those areas. REMEMBER: DRONES ARE NOT ALLOWED IN NO FLY FIRE ZONES.

The Rice Ridge is now 10-percent contained at 9,286 acres.

The next public meeting will be held tomorrow, August 10 at 6pm at the Seeley Lake Elementary School.

Heavy equipment continued constructing line along the western flank. Indirect line is being constructed south of Morrell Mountain, along Cottonwood Lake Road in preparation for any fire growth.

Today's priority will continue to be in the Blind Canyon area, where fire activity is expected to increase. Heavy equipment and hand crews will build indirect line in anticipation of fire growth on the southeast portion of the fire.

The 14,591 Sunrise Fire southeast of Superior is listed as 10-percent contained. There is potential for fire growth to the north and south, threatening structures in Quartz Creek and Verde Creek.

Community meeting tonight at Lozeau Lodge at 7:00 p.m.

Today’s plan calls for burnout operations to continue in Quartz Creek, Brushy Gulch and Verde Creek to protect structures and homes. Crews are mopping up around structures to secure control lines. Teams are scouting for contingency control line options north of Trout Creek. A mobile retardant plant is expected to be operational by afternoon.

The area closure around the Sunrise Fire now includes the Trout Creek Road. Road blocks are in place near the Pellet Mill and Freezeout Road #7813. Hoodoo Pass is accessible via Cedar Creek and Freezeout Road (high clearance vehicles recommended and no trailers).

No major blowups last night for the Gibralter Ridge Fire burning five miles east of Eureka. It's estimated to be at 1, 133 acres. 

A public meeting will be held this afternoon at 5 p.m. at the Eureka High School auditorium. Information will be provided on the current fire status, expected fire activites and safety concerns. 

Evacuations remain the same as on Tuesday when thirty homes were evacuated and one hundred more put on evacuation standby. 

The following areas are still under evacuation: Sherman Creek, Griffith Creek, Therriault Pass, and Stevens Creek. Other areas, including upper Grave Creek, Glen Lake, and Sinclair Cr (south/east of West Road) are under pre-evacuation. As of Wednesday morning no additional evacuations were required.

All of Lincoln county is in Stage II Fire Restrictions – no burning, no campfires, and no charcoal briquettes (only BBQ’s with an on/off switch), gas generators only in cleared or paved areas.

Weather is the largest concern throughout the day. Gusty and erratic winds, caused by expected thunder storms, can blow embers up to one half mile in front of the main fire, creating spot fires. Firefighters will be patrolling for these spot fires and suppressing them as necessary. Ground crews will also be continuing suppression activates, assisted by aerial resources and heavy equipment. Additional resources will be coming in throughout the day with the Western Montana Type 2 Incident Management Team. That team is expected to assume control of the Gibralter Fire this evening at 6 p.m. 

A total of eight new lighting starts reported in Glacier National Park. One of those fires is now completely contained. The rest are estimated to be between one-tenth to one-quarter of an acre in size and have firefighters on scene. Trail closures are expected.

Smoke from the Gibralter fire near Eureaka is reported to be very heavy in parts of the Northfork. Drivers are urged to be careful and slow down where appropriate. 

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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