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

Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 16, 2017

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Digging in on Seeley Lake's Rice Ridge Fire

Montana's firefighting fund could run dry by the end of the week, the state's budget director acknowledged Wednesday, forcing officials to draw money from emergency reserves to keep crews and equipment on the front lines of the worst collection of wildfires in the U.S.
As of Wednesday, more than $168.5 million of mostly federal money has gone into battling about 80 large fires that have charred more than 400,000 acres statewide.

The largest of the fires currently burning in the Lolo National Forest is less than half contained — with full containment not expected until October.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says the spending has included more than $29.5 million in state resources. With more than a half million dollars being spent daily battling wildfires, that means it will be just a matter of days before the $2.5 million left in the fire fund is fully depleted, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

State Budget Director Dan Villa stressed that other money is available when the fund is depleted.

The Missoula County Sheriff's office says residents under evacuation along Highway 12 due to the Lolo Peak fire will be allowed temporary access to their properties.

The Missoula County Sheriff's office says residents under evacuation along Highway 12 due to the Lolo Peak fire will be allowed temporary access to their properties.
The Missoula County Sheriff's office says residents under evacuation along Highway 12 due to the Lolo Peak fire will be allowed temporary access to their properties.

Resident Access Permits can be obtained at the permit station located at the intersection of Sleeman Creek Road and Highway 12. Permits will start being issued at 8:30 a.m August 17. One permit will be issued per residence. Permits will be valid from 9:00 a.m. to noon each day. Residents will be required to check in and check out at the permit station upon entry and exit tot he fire area. Additional information will follow at the public meeting scheduled at 7 p.m. August 17.

Crews managing the Blue Bay Fire on the east shore of Flathead Lake began a controlled burn at 2:00 this afternoon about a mile above Highway 35.

C.T. Camel with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says the controlled burn is designed to eliminate vegetation along 10 acres of steep terrain on the southwest edge of the 65-acre wildfire sparked by lightning late last week.

“It’s on the bottom, it’s very steep, you know. Things have been rolling, so they’re just trying to button up that corner.”

Camel estimates the three 20 person crews on the burn, and that helicopters conducting it will finish sometime this evening. He says people traveling along highway 35 near the Blue Bay campground should expect to see more smoke and fire behavior and advises drivers to keep moving to limit congestion.

Update: 12:07 p.m.

Wednesday's shaping up to be yet another active fire day in Montana.

Fire Restrictions in the Anaconda Pintle Wilderness and Chute Creek Fire Update:

The Darby/Sula Ranger District has announced that Stage 1 Fire Restrictions are in place in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness east of Sula.

Stage 1 restrictions prohibit building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, campfire or stove. Camping stoves (Liquid petroleum) that can be turned on and off are allowed along with a completely contained wood stove within a cabin or wall tent with a fire screen or spark arrester. Such devices can only be used in areas that are barren or cleared of all overhead and surrounding flammable materials within three feet of the device.

Smoking is also prohibited unless in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared or all flammable materials. Individuals who violate these restrictions can face fines up to $5,000 and six months in jail along with paying suppression costs and damages, if you start a fire. For more information click here.

The Chute Creek Fire burning in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness 2.5 miles west of Blodgett Lake grew to 662 acres yesterday. Smoke from the fire was visible from Valley locations and active fire behavior was observed throughout the afternoon. Smoke impacts are likely again today in the Blodgett and Canyon Creek drainages west of Hamilton. Fire managers on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest are working with the Bitterroot NF on long-term plans for this fire including identifying any values at risk in the area. Stage 2 Fire Restrictions remain in place for rest of the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana and here in Ravalli County. This means campfires and all other fires are prohibited along with wood cutting (chainsaws) after 1p.m. Smoking is not allowed unless in enclosed vehicles, buildings, or flammable free areas. Camping stoves (liquid petroleum) that can be turned on and off are allowed.

Fire danger on the forest is currently “Extreme”, the highest possible level. Under these conditions fires start quickly, spread furiously and burn intensely. All fires are potentially serious and development into high intensity burning will be faster and occur even on smaller fires. Direct attack is rarely possible and may be dangerous except immediately after ignition.

Firefighters have responded to and extinguished 48 wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest this summer. Due to the quick response of crews, most fires were kept small -- under 1 acre in size.

Work continues on the 65-acre Blue Bay Fire above Flathead Lake. That one is 10-percent contained. Tuesday’s objective was to reinforce the lower 1/3 control lines with fire and that objective was met. Firefighters will continue to hold direct containment lines and mitigate hazard trees near control lines and roads.

A hot, dry - and later this afternoon - breezy day expected on the Lolo Peak Fire southwest of Lolo. That 10, 363-acxre fire will be with us for a long time. Very active fire behavior is forecast mid-day through early evening with some single tree and group tree torching, as well as short uphill runs where fuel, wind and slope align. Pacific Northwests team leader Noel Livingston will transfer command  to Northern Rockies Team A Chief Push, Greg Poncin tomorrow.

The size of the mandatory evacuation area along U.S Highway 12 west of Lolo was reduced Tuesday. Residents along a 1.7 mile stretch of the highway, from mile marker 20 to 21.7, are now back in their homes, but are cautioned that they may have to reevacuate on a moment's notice. The full evacuation order reamins in effect on both sides of Highway 12 from mile marker 21.7 to mile marker 29. 

Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake now stands at 11,754 acres with 10-percent containment.

Another community meeting will be held Thursday, August 17 at 6pm at the Seeley Lake Elementary School.

Yesterday the most active portion of the fire continued to burn in the Swamp Creek and Morrell Mountain areas. Indirect line construction and fuel breaks were completed along the entire western perimeter of the fire. Crews today will begin strategic firing operations with a test burn located near Morrell Mountain. If conditions permit, crews will start firing operations this afternoon, beginning with creating a blackened area that will function as a safety zone for personnel working in the area. Firing operations have the potential to produce a significant amount of smoke that will be visible from many locations in town.

Aircraft will be used throughout the day to reinforce indirect lines with retardant on the southeast portion of the fire. 

Dry and breezy condition forecast for Eureka's 2,021-acre Gibralter Ridge Fire. Tree torching and fire spotting  are likely later this afternoon. 

The fire is contained near the intersection of Foothills Road and Sherman Creek resulting in an overall containment of 12%. Approximately 11 miles of shaded fuel breaks have been developed along the Foothills and Grave Creek roads, north and south of the fire. Mop up operations will continue.

To lessen the fire threat to homes, operations ignitions are planned this afternoon along the south side of the fire. The Deep Grave Creek Divide area will be placed under a temporary closure affecting all traffic. The burn operation will be conducted using aerial ignition. Fire activity will be noticeable but controlled. The intention is to keep the fire burning at low intensity and slowly burning downhill over the next several days. This is needed to contain the fire with the least amount of negative impact to the forest.

A public meeting will be held at the Lincoln County High School tomorrow the 17th at 6 p.m.

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