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

Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 15, 2017

Gibralter Ridge fire

The size of the mandatory evacuation area along U.S. Highway 12 west of Lolo has been reduced.

At about 2:00 p.m. Missoula County’s Sheriff allowed residents along a 1.7  mile stretch of Highway 12 back into their homes. That stretch is on the east side of the evacuation area, it’s from mile marker 20 to 21.7.

The original evacuation order applied to about 165 residences. Today’s modification reduces that to about 150.

But, Fire Information Officer Sig Palm says, "it’s still in the warning area, a pre-evacuation warning. So that means be prepared to take off at a moment’s notice if something happened."

The full evacuation order remains in effect along both sides of U.S. Highway 12 from mile 21.7 to mile 29.

Highway 12 closed briefly yesterday, but remains open now with pilot cars through the fire area. Motorists to expect delays, and the highway could be closed again at any time.

Montana Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale says many homeowners insurance policies can help out with evacuation expenses.

“If you’re subject to a mandatory civil evacuation order many insurance policies will provide extra living expense coverage for up to two weeks.”

Rosendale advises saving all evacuation related receipts. And he has this advice for anyone who is currently, or who may one day, be threatened by wildfire:

“The most important thing for people to do is to document, document, document. It’s critical.”

Rosendale says insurance agents need a good checklist of a policyholder’s possessions that could be destroyed or damaged in a fire. If those belongings are destroyed, it’s equally important to take pictures of the damage before anything is cleaned up. 

Some homeowner policies even cover indirect wildfire-related problems such as smoke or fire-retardant damages.

Damage to trees, landscaping and fencing typically are not covered by insurance policies.

Update 12:00 p.m.

Most areas in Glacier National Park are wide open to the public, 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.

That’s not to say the park doesn’t have wildfire to contend with.

The Sprague Fire, which was sparked in a lightning storm on August 10 in Glacier, has actively burned over the past two days. The park expects that this fire may continue to burn in some capacity throughout the summer season before a snow event this fall. Though a cool weather system moved through the area on Sunday and Monday, little rain fell on the fire. The fire is now estimated at 100 acres and is burning in steep, heavily forested terrain on the west side of the park. Due to very dry fuels and predicted dry weather conditions, fire managers expect to see continued fire growth over the next several weeks. The fire is located above Crystal Ford on the Gunsight Trail. This is the main access trail to the Sperry Chalet. Depending on fire behavior, the Sperry Chalet may remain closed for the rest of the season. The structures at Sperry Chalet are not immediately threatened by fire at this time, however the park is prepared to implement structural protection precautions as necessary. Sperry Chalet has 17 guest rooms that hold between 40-50 overnight guests each night during the summer season. The chalet was scheduled to close for the season on September 11. Thus far, ground firefighting resources have not been able to access the fire safely for direct action.

Other fires within the park have been contained or are being staffed. A fire was reported in the North Fork area of the park on Sunday. The Adair Peak fire was evaluated on August 14 for fire behavior and threats to structures. It is burning in heavy duff in a remote area. It would require a substantial firefighter commitment to extinguish in the short-term. Due to this, the park will continue to evaluate and assess this fire, but will direct firefighting resources to other fires unless fire behavior changes. Fire managers expect that the Adair Peak fire may grow somewhat. No structures are immediately threatened.

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

10-percent containment reported on the 55-acre Blue Bay Fire burning above Flathead Lake. Retardant drops on the fire’s edge continues.

The 10,047-acre Lolo Peak Fire continues its stubborn march southwest of Lolo.

Incident Commander Noel Livingston says over 370 hours of helicopter time have helped keep the fire from jumping the Bitterroot crest and out of the Highway 93 corridor. In his morning video briefing Livingston says the team will continue to slowly coax the fire off the hill closer toward established containment lines just above Highway 12; basically between Mill Creek and where the south fork of Lolo Creek runs into the bottom of the drainage. Highway 12 remains closed until further notice.

Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake: 11,754 acres and 10-percent containment.

Yesterday crews used heavy equipment to construct indirect line on the northwest portion of the fire, working to connect with the 2015 Morrell Complex Fire burn scar. A helicopter was used to control fire spread on the south side of the swamp creek drainage. Aircraft today will be used as needed and as weather allows to check fire growth. Crews will continue to use heavy equipment to construct indirect line on the northwest end of the fire, which is nearing completion. Fuels reduction work also continues around the northeast corner of the Double Arrow development.

Fire managers are assessing where best to use strategic firing operations to remove fuel between the fire front and completed indirect fire line in the Morrell Mountain area. Additional crews will be arriving to assist with firing efforts. Successful firing operations require a specific set of conditions. Managers are monitoring weather and fire behavior as they change throughout the day and will use fire strategically as these conditions permit. If fire and weather conditions cooperate to allow for strategic firing, additional crews will be shifted for nighttime operations.

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