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

Montana Wildfire Roundup for August 10, 2017

Lincoln County Sheriff Facebook
Helicopter on Gibralter Fire

The smoke pouring into a Seeley Lake from a nearby wildfire has gotten so bad that health officials are warning residents to leave the area, or at least find somewhere else to sleep at night when the smoke is at its worst.

Seeley Lake registered air pollution levels Thursday morning 38 times above what the World Health Organization says is safe. The hazardous air prompted the Missoula City-County Health Department to recommend for the first time ever that an entire community just leave their homes for clearer skies.

The recommendation is not an enforceable evacuation and most of Seeley Lake’s 1,600 residents are staying.

Firefighters working on the 4,200 acre Liberty Fire southeast of Arlee are employing a long-term confinement strategy. The fire, which at one point threatened evacuations in the Placid Lake area, is now far enough away from communities that fire managers say they can take a more patient approach that minimizes risks to firefighters.

“Because it is a wilderness and primitive area, we have the ability to utilize a strategy that gives us more time," says Kristin Allison, a public information officer working on the Liberty Fire.

The Liberty Fire is now 90 percent contained. 

Top federal and state fire managers say the National Fire Preparedness Level will be raised to its highest point Friday afternoon.

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group made the announcement today, saying the jump to Preparedness Level 5 reflects a high degree of wildfire activity and that further assistance from the military and international resources may be considered and requested.

The group says wildfire activity has escalated in recent days after thunderstorms, many with little or no moisture, moved across parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, sparking hundreds of new fires.

Montana’s state climatologist Kelsey Jensco says a persistent high pressure system hovering above the state may be to blame for all the fires and drought in Montana this summer.

"Where you have a high pressure system, you typically don’t have lots of rainfall. So it’s just been really dry this year."

To date, more than 40,800 wildfires have burned over 6 million acres in the United States this year, which is below the ten-year average for number of fires but above the ten-year average for acres burned.

The last time the National Preparedness Level was raised to 5 was on August 13, 2015.

Updated 1:22 p.m.

Portions of the east and north sections of the Meyers fire, located 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg received a small amount of rainfall Wednesday afternoon. 

While it did lessen fire activity somewhat in the grassy fuels it was not enough to have any long-range impact on the fire. Several lightning strikes were observed well north of the fire yesterday afternoon along with some brief periods of rain showers. Initial attack teams will monitor those areas for the next several days and take appropriate actions should any new fire starts be detected.

There is a chance of scattered thunderstorms again this afternoon. A drier weather pattern is expected as we get towards the end of the week into the weekend. This could bring an increase in fire activity and a chance of some dry thunderstorms. 

Good progress was made yesterday as hand crews and heavy equipment completed construction of indirect fireline along the southeast and east flanks of the fire northward to the Copper Creek #80 Road. Firefighters will continue to build contingency lines to the north towards Kaiser Lake today, and clearing of brush and hazard trees along the Copper Creek #80 Road towards Frog Pond will continue.

Yesterday, residents of the Moose Lake area were allowed to visit their properties under escort by fire personnel, but were not allowed to stay as the evacuation order remains in effect. Structure protection measures have been in place for the residences in the Moose Lake area and no structures have been lost. 

Updated 12:27

Lolo Peak Fire: 7,644 acres 10 miles southwest of Lolo.

29-year-old Hotshot Brent Witham, who died while working this fire, was laid to rest in his home state of California today. 

Wednesday's weather was cooler, with high relative humidity due to an increase in smoke in the region providing more shading. A few thunderstorms developed 50 miles south of the Lolo Peak Fire, however they had no impact on the fire. Thursday's weather will be a near repeat of Wednesday’s. 

Firefighters are managing fire growth to avoid problems where wind, topography and fuels could allow for rapid growth to the northeast toward homes and structures along U.S. 12 and the town of Lolo. Fire activity is expected to be moderate today, but continuing to spread west down toward the South Fork of Lolo Creek where firefighters will be improving smaller containment blocks as fire backs downhill. To the southwest, crews have completed work on the primary containment line, tying into a bare rock outcrop near the old “Rocky Fire” scar. 

Sunrise Fire: eleven miles southeast of Superior. 14,591 acres and 20-percent containment. Mineral County Sheriff Tom Bauer yesterday ordered 10 residences in Cougar Creek to evacuate. Bauer describes them as mostly seasonal residences which of which had already evacuated. Already under evacuation are Quartz Creek and sections of Verde Creek. 

Fire officials say the Sunrise is expected to burn into Idaho and evacuations in Trout Creek are not out of the question. Long-range spotting has the potential to cross the Clark Fork River and I-90, impacting traffic, the Montana Rail Link rail line, transmission lines and additional structures. Burnouts along control lines will be necessary to direct the main fire front away from communities. Continued fire perimeter growth is expected along uncontrolled fire edges. 

The massive 27,528 acre Sapphire Complex burning 25 miles east of Missoula in the Rock Creek drainage is now 32-percent contained. The Rock Creek Road north of Harry’s Flat and the Welcome Creek Wilderness has been removed from the Lolo National Forest closure. Grizzly Campground trail-head is still in the closure since there are trails leading directly into the Sliderock Fire. 

The biggest fire in that complex, the Little Hogback Fire is 18,612 acres and 7 percent- contained. The structure protection group is assessing and prepping structures along the Rock Creek and upper Willow Creek roads. Fire crews held and improved the road system by adding depth to the current line in the upper Willow Creek area and will continue this work today. Today, crews will work to construct indirect dozer line between Ram Mountain and Windlass Gulch. Aircraft will be used to reinforce fire line and assist fire crews with firing operations. Additional fire resources have been added to night shift, which included two engine strike teams and a hot shot crew. 

The Goat Creek Fire is 75-percent contained and now listed at 8,056 acres. Fire resources are holding and improving line north of Brewster Creek. Surplus pumps and hoses will be removed along the Rock Creek Road, and engines will patrol the area. Firing operations will be conducted to add depth to the east perimeter as conditions allow. Heavy Equipment resources have been skidding and decking timber from indirect line construction on the east side of the fire. 

The 860 acre Sliderock Fire is 30-percent contained. Fire resources will monitor the fire and aircraft will be used to cool hotspots and secure existing lines.

Gibralter Ridge Fire: 1,493 acres.

The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office allowed residents to access their homes temporarily this morning. Access was granted from 9 AM - 11 AM so that residents can collect any needed belongings and check on their properties. To get through the road check points, residents needed to sign-in and sign back out with the Sheriff deputy at the check point and provide an ID and license plate number.

There was minimal growth on the fire yesterday and firefighters are focusing most of their efforts in keeping the fire east of Forest Service Rd.756 (Foothills Rd). Two additional Hotshot crews arrived. In addition, 10 engines are ordered and to provide for firefighter safety, logging equipment will also be used.

Firefighters will continue patrol for spot fires on private and state lands and will use Foothill road as a control line to minimize the threat to the structures in the area. Crews are scouting north and south of the fire for locations for contingency lines and look for areas to thin the vegetation to modify fire behavior which will provide for firefighters the best opportunity to hold the fire.

Evacuations remain the same, no additional evacuation have been called for. The following areas are still under evacuation: Sherman Creek, Griffith Creek, Therriault Pass Rd, and Stevens Creek. Other areas, including Glen Lake and Sinclair Cr (south/east of West Road) are under pre-evacuation. All area residents should have an evacuation plan in place including having all important documents, pictures, prescriptions and pets gathered up and easily transportable. Law enforcement will also be patrolling the evacuation areas while residents are evacuated.

Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake: 10, 194 acres and 10-percent containment.

A public meeting will be held tonight, at 6 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Elementary School.

Today: In order to secure the southern flank and protect the Double Arrow community, fire managers have identified an opportunity to construct fireline from Morrell Mountain down a ridge to Cottonwood Lakes Road. Helicopters will be utilized to check fire spread as conditions allow. Crews and equipment will build fireline from Seeley Creek Road to Camp Creek Road, between Highway 83 and FR-720. This line will be routed to the northeast and tie into the 2015 Morrell Complex burn scar where fuels are sparse. The east flank will be monitored by aircraft as it continues to spread toward the Wilderness.

For the Seeley Lake area, expect continued heavy smoke conditions reaching Hazardous levels this morning and tonight. Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion.

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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