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

Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 14, 2017

Rice Ridge fire managers discuss tactics

Parts of Western Montana were breathing a little easier this morning after weekend thunderstorms brought with them cooler temperatures and increased humidity.

But the storms also prompted the evacuation of about 160 homes on either side of Highway 12 west of Lolo mid-day Sunday.

Montana’s Department of Transportation says that Highway 12 is now open with pilot cars between mile markers 16 and 30, and to expect reduced speeds and delays. The department says motorists should also expect the highway to be closed at any time.

Later Sunday, conditions improved, but in an update posted to Facebook this morning, the incident commander on the Lolo Peak Fire Noel Livingston said to expect continued fire growth.

“So we’ve had a pause, but it’s not the end of the event. Tomorrow things are going to continue to dry as we get more wind on the fire, which is predicted for the next three or four days, and we will return to the fire spread we saw."

Livingston said that dry and windy conditions will keep the evacuated area at high risk for the foreseeable future.

There’s a public meeting about the Lolo Peak Fire tonight at 7:00 in the Lolo School’s upper gym.

Yesterday’s favorable weather also helped limit growth of the Rice Ridge Fire outside Seeley Lake. So far today, conditions have been relatively calm on both the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires. There’s a public meeting at 6:00 tonight on the Rice Ridge Fire. That meeting will be streamed live on the Lolo National Forest’s Facebook page.

In the Eureka area evacuees from the Gibralter Ridge fire were allowed back into their homes at noon today, although the evacuation area remains closed to non-residents. There will be a public meeting on the Gibralter Ridge fire in Eureka at 6 p.m.

Evacuation warnings for the Liberty Fire burning near Arlee have been lifted as of noon today. Road closures remain in place for the south fork of Jocko River Road and the middle fork of Jocko River Road. Sunday's rain helped reduce fire activity on the 5,000 acre blaze. Firefighters continue to monitor and improve fire line on the fire which is 90 percent contained.

Glacier National Park has resumed issuing backcountry permits, but some backcountry campgrounds remain closed due to fire activity. All front country campgrounds remain open.

Trail closures remain in effect in parts of the park. Trail closures remain in effect for the Howe Ridge Trail, Camas Trail, Trout Lake Trail, the Gunsight Pass Trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass (including all secondary trails such as the Snyder Lake Trail), and the Lincoln Lake Trail.

Sperry Chalet remains closed. The structures in the Sperry Chalet complex are not immediately threatened, however the Sprague fire has necessitated the closure of the main trail that accesses the chalet.

Please check the park website for updated trail and road information.

On the east side of Flathead Lake, the Blue Bay fire has grown to nearly 50 acres after being started by lightning Thursday. There will be a community meeting for this fire tonight at 7 at Blue Bay

Update: 4:00 p.m.

Around 3:00 p.m. the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office advised residents of Miller Canyon to consider evacuating, or be prepared to evacuate due to a "fast-moving fire south of Miller Canyon" which is moving north.

Update 1:05 p.m. :

Gibralter Ridge Fire: 7 miles east of Eureka. 1,938 acres and 6 percent containment. At noon today evacuees of the Gibralter Ridge Fire were allowed back into their homes. 

All returning residents must sign in with Sheriff deputies at the road check points, where they will be given hazard information and official access passes to put in their vehicles. An area closure remains in effect for all non-residents. Residents in a pre-evacuation area will remain in pre-evacuation status as the fire could still threaten private property.

A public meeting will be held today at 6 PM at the Lincoln County High School in Eureka.

12:41 p.m. update:

Glacier National Park has resumed issuing backcountry permits in designated backcountry sites. Some backcountry campgrounds are closed due to fire activity. All front country campgrounds remain open. Check herefor updated status.

Trail closures remain in effect for the Howe Ridge Trail, Camas Trail, Trout Lake Trail, the Gunsight Pass Trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass (including all secondary trails such as the Snyder Lake Trail), and the Lincoln Lake Trail.

The Sprague Fire (estimated at 35 acres) is being managed using a confine and contain strategy due to the steep terrain and concerns with fire fighter safety. Aerial resources have been used to slow fire growth, and ground resources are on scene.

Other fires within the park are being staffed.

Sperry Chalet remains closed. The structures in the Sperry Chalet complex are not immediately threatened, however the Sprague fire has necessitated the closure of the main trail that accesses the chalet. No overnight guests remain at Sperry Chalet.

Most areas of the park are open including all areas of the North Fork, Apgar Village, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Granite Park Chalet, Two Medicine, St. Mary, Many Glacier and Goat Haunt. Please check the park website for updated trail and road information.

The Cyclone Lake fire burning in the Coal Creek State Forest in the Flathead National Forest’s North Fork area is estimated at 36-acres. It's being managed with full suppression tactics and firefighter / public safety as the number one priority. It is burning in heavy timber, and in pockets of previously burned areas in 2000 and 2001, with dead and down forest fuels. There are no evacuations in place and no structures threatened. The public is asked to avoid travel on Forest Road #909 from the junction with Forest Road #319 to the Cyclone Lookout Trailhead junction, as fire traffic is concentrated in that area.

The 1,895-acre Monahan Fire is located between Monahan Mountain on the Lolo National Forest and Little Apex Mountain on the Flathead National Forest. The fire is being managed for resource benefit including allowing the fire to play its natural ecological role with consideration for public and firefighter safety and point protection of historic resources and trail infrastructure. There are trail closures in place. 

12:00 p.m. update

Concise video update from Lolo Peak Fire incident commander Noel Livingston.

Meyers Fire: 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg. 13,711 acres and 5-percent containment.

The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Blue Team, with Jay Esperance, Incident Commander (IC) assumed command of the Meyers Fire at 6 am today.  Yesterday, the Blue Team strived to get as familiar as possible with every facet of the Meyers Fire. All the functions worked side by side with the previous team to ensure a seamless transition.

Suppression plans and actions will not be changing radically with the new command and the fire situation has not changed. The most active parts of the fire remain predominantly in the northern and western flanks. The potential for large fire growth is still high due to the presence of thick dry vegetation between the fire edge and the primary control lines. However, should the fire begin to move toward these lines, fire managers have identified locations that will trigger aggressive suppression actions. These actions include aerial water drops and the activation of structure protection sprinkler systems. The desired effect will be to slow the uncontrolled advance of the fire giving firefighters a better chance of holding the lines.

Firefighters are making excellent progress and have completed more than 75% of the indirect control lines. Most of the remaining work must be done by hand and chippers. Much of the heavy equipment is being relocated north to speed the construction of the east/west contingency line for the protection of East Fork Reservoir and Georgetown Lake.

Structure protection is still a priority for Moose Lake and the Frog Pond areas. Initial attack resources have been identified and are prepared to react to new starts should they occur.

A possibility of scattered showers and thunderstorms exists and will be increasing as the day goes on. A chance of a wetting rain in some areas is possible. 

Lolo Peak Fire, 10 miles southwest of Lolo: 9,981 acres.

Community Fire Information Briefing: Tonight, at 7:00 p.m., Lolo Public School (Upper Gym), 11395 Hwy 93, South Lolo. 

The fire was extremely active Sunday morning following strong winds from thunderstorms Saturday night which pushed the fire to the north and east into Tevis and Mill Creek drainages. The fire behavior and movement with predicted strong west winds Sunday afternoon, and potential for rapid fire spread down to the valley floor, prompted fire officials and Missoula County Sheriff’s Office to evacuate both sides of US Highway 12 between Bear Creek and Fort Fizzle.

The fire did not cross primary containment lines. The unexpected duration of the rain, corresponding rise in humidity, and quieter winds than expected moderated fire behavior.

The fire also expanded on the west side dropping further into Johnny Creek and Dick Creek. Firefighters will take advantage of the break in weather today (Wind will be from the west 5-10-mph with gusts to 20 mph. Max temperatures will be 65-70 along ridges and 78-83 in the valleys. Minimum relative humidity will be 25-30-percent) to begin burnout operations to remove fire alignment with wind, terrain and fuel to slowly bring fire down to containment lines.

Evacuations will remain in place because of the fire proximity to homes and the very real potential to become very active over the next couple of days with continued forecast for windy conditions. Evacuations/Closure Information: Evacuation Orders are in effect for both the north and south sides of Highway 12 between Fort Fizzle west to Mile Post 20 at Bear Creek, which includes the Mill Creek Road and Elk Meadows Road areas. A Evacuation Warning has been issued for both the north and south sides of Highway 12 from Fort Fizzle east to Balsam Root Road, as well as residents on Morman Creek Road past Vann Drive and those on Vann Drive. This Warning is not an order to evacuate, only a warning so that citizens can prepare should evacuations become necessary. For further information call 258-INFO (4636).

Highway 12 is closed between Fort Fizzle and Grave’s Creek Road. Please do not stop along the road to view fire activity as it creates a traffic hazard.

Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake: 11,277 acres and 10-percent containment.

A community meeting will be held tonight, August 14 at 6pm at the Seeley Lake Elementary School.

At approximately 9:30 on Sunday morning, a contract engine was involved in a single vehicle rollover accident on Morrell Creek Road. One individual was taken to a nearby medical facility for treatment. The cause of the accident is under investigation. No further comment was released.

Fire growth yesterday was limited across the fire with the exception of the Swamp Creek drainage, where the perimeter moved across the drainage and up the ridge to the southeast. Favorable winds and increasing relative humidity limited spread as the fire approached the ridge. Line construction continued along the northwest portion of the fire with heavy equipment. Crews continue to install hoselays and perform brush clean up along the west and southeast sides of the fire. Fuels reduction work also continued along the northeast boundary of the Double Arrow Ranch.

Firefighters today will use heavy equipment on the northwest end of the fire, working to connect the indirect line along the western portion of the fire. Given the favorable weather conditions and work completed in preparation, fire managers are planning to use strategic firing operations in the coming days to secure the uncontrolled fire edge. Fuels reduction will continue on public land just north of the Double Arrow Ranch.

Sapphire Complex (Little Hogback, Goat Creek and Sliderock fires) 25 miles east of Missoula, south of I-90 in the Rock Creek Drainage: 30, 034 acres with 42-percent containment.

Little Hogback: Firefighters will hold and improve firelines along the Upper Willow Creek Road, east of the fire area. In the southwest, operations will hold and monitor the fire along the Rock Creek corridor and continue to provide structure protection.

Goat CreekFire: Continue to hold the fire along the Rock Creek Road and mop up around structures. Hold the fire along Brewster Creek On the south side of the fire. On the eastern side of the fire, hold and improve handline by burning out green islands. On the east side of the fire continue indirect line construction to tie in with the Sliderock fire on the east.

Sliderock: Hold the west and south perimeter near the mining claim structures. Use direct handline with handcrews and heavy helicopters to stop the north flank from growing into the Goat Creek fire.

Sunrise Fire 11 miles southeast of Superior: 19,029 acres with 20-percent containment.

Trout Creek Road from Magone Ranch (near Pellet Mill) southwest through the fire area is in Stage III evacuation, as are Quartz Creek, Cougar Gulch, and Verde Creek. As of Monday morning, Verde Creek will be downgraded to Stage I. Riverbend, Sunrise and Quartz Flat are in Stage II evacuation. Residents along Diamond Match Road from the overpass and jct. with Forest Road 7798 to the Magone Ranch are also in Stage II evacuation.

Expected fire growth to the north, east and south will threaten structures. Burnouts along control lines will be necessary to direct the main fire front away from communities. Stage II evacuations are expected with increased winds from the southwest. The fire is now in the upper end of Verde Creek, 1 mile from structures near the lower end of Verde Creek. Stage II evacuations are expected with increased winds from the southwest. Type 1 crews and type 3 engine strike teams are needed to hold the indirect line currently in place and to protect the structures.

Gibralter Ridge: 7 miles east of Eureka. 1,938 acres and 6-percent containment.

Public Meeting Announcement: We will be hosting another public meeting Monday, August 14th. It will be at 6 PM at the Lincoln County High School in Eureka. Operations specialists will be available to discuss the current fire situation and expected outlook. The Sheriff'd Department will also be available to discuss the evacuations.

Cooler temperatures and higher humidity have allowed firefighters to make good progress and have several very successful operational shifts. The fire is contained near the intersection of Foothills Road and Sherman Creek resulting in an overall containment of 6%. Shaded fuel breaks have been developed along the Foothills and Grave Creek roads, north and south of the fire. Mop up operations, where firefighters seek out and suppress any residual heat sources, are continuing on the west side of Foothills road, focusing on the areas around structures. Planned Actions: Throughout the day, firefighters will be holding the fire along the Foothills Road, constructing additional containment line, extending shaded fuel breaks, and mopping up near structures.

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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