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

Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 31, 2017

Montana Drought Monitor Map for August 29, 2017.
Montana Drought Monitor Map for August 29, 2017.

 Update 7:45 p.m.

One of Glacier National Park’s historic backcountry lodges was lost to the Sprague Fire Thursday evening. The main building at the Sperry Chalet burned despite firefighters’ best efforts.

Across Montana today, firefighters are scrambling to keep up with dozens of new fire starts in the last 24 hours. Four big fires sparked on the east side of the state today, and the Flathead Beacon reports that there are 13 news fires in the Kootenai National Forest, some prompting evacuation warnings near Trout Creek and Thompson Falls.

So far this year, more than 1,500 fires have burned 937 square miles in Montana. The fires have already drained the state's firefighting reserve fund and an emergency fund, and there is no end in sight for the hot, dry weather that the fires are feeding on.

The number of Montana National Guard troops deployed on wildfires in the state will roughly triple by the end of this weekend.

Governor Steve Bullock made that announcement today while warning of the immense fire danger over the Labor Day weekend.

There are currently more than a hundred national guard members working on fires in the state. General Matthew Quinn says more are on the way.

“That will include some line crews, that are being trained in the firefighting. More aviation assets will be rolling out, and more security assets.

According to the Governor’s office there have been more than 60 new lightning caused fire starts in the Rocky Mountain region over the last day, and only a handful of them were weren’t snuffed out in initial attacks. If lightning strikes the earth, officials say it’s almost a sure thing it will start a fire in current  conditions.

Governor Bullock says as people go out to enjoy the holiday weekend they need to be mindful of the risks. Much of the state is in a red flag weather warning, and more dry lightning, wind and high temperatures will continue throughout the weekend.

“Recognize where you could actually be part of starting a new fire in what are some of the driest conditions we’ve have ever had.”

There are 23 large fires burning in the state spanning more than 200,00 acres.

Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake

Over 1,000 people in and around Seeley Lake are still unable to return to their homes after evacuation orders that were put into place earlier this week. Officials began ordering the mandatory evacuations after the Rice Ridge fire spotted across a control line Monday evening August, 28. Additional evacuation orders and warnings have been issued throughout the week.

Brenda Bassett, a spokeswoman for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office that issued the evacuations, says that they are communicating with the Fire Incident command team to get people back into their homes.

“We’ll get those people in as soon as we possibly can, we just need to make sure it’s safe to do so.”

She says they are still waiting for conditions to improve before they can allow escorted visits for residents trying to get back into their homes to collect belongings.

“We know it’s hard to be outside of your home, so we’ll do everything in our power to get those people in, but it’s just totally dependent on the safety of the fire.”

Rice Ridge Fire spokesman Mark Vosburgh says the main concern for fire crews is the weather. A Red flag warning is in effect for the region until 9 p.m. tonight, and strong winds continue to be an issue, causing fire growth.

Vosburgh says wind cleared some of the smoke out of the valley yesterday and today, allowing better visibility for aircraft fighting the fire, but that there’s a flip side.

“The down side of the smoke clearing is that it is usually accompanied by more active fire behavior and that’s definitely what we’re seeing today, but it is helpful to get the aircraft flying and it’s a nice relief for folks down here in the valley.”

There will be a community meeting for the Rice Ridge Fire tonight at 6 p.m. at the Community Center in Seeley Lake that will be live-streamed on the Lolo National Forest Facebook page.

East Fork Fire near Havre

Officials say a wildfire burning south of Havre that started Sunday has destroyed five cabins,
five other structures and is threatening another 130 buildings.

The 17-square-mile East Fork Fire is burning in the Bears Paw Mountains between Havre and
the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

Residents in the area have been put on notice that they may have to evacuate, a few homes in the area were evacuated yesterday.

Southeastern Montana Fires

Four new fires are reported to have sparked this morning in southeastern Montana’s Rosebud County.

The Sartin Draw Fire first reported this morning is burning mostly in Custer and Powder River Counties and is approximately 40,000 acres with no containment at this time. 70 people were deployed to it, as it spread across forested land along portions of the Powder River, about one mile from the Brandenburg Bridge in Rosebud County. That’s according to the Rosebud County Fire Warden Rod Dresbach.

“I believe the county assist team or CAT team is in briefing right now to take over management of that fire.”

The CAT is Department of Natural Resources and Conservation sponsored, all-hazard Incident Management team. It’s made up of volunteer firefighters, farmers, ranchers, business people, local government officials, college students, public land employees and others. They step in to help battle wildfires when they grow too large for what initial attack forces are capable of fighting. 

But the Sartin fire is small potatoes compared to a new fire that sprung up in Rosebud County this afternoon:

“The problem that we have right now is The Snyder,” Dresbach says.

He says The Snyder Fire was spotted by a state helicopter who then deployed a hel-attack crew on the ground and started dropping buckets on it.

“Air attack came in and they brought in some loads of retardant, SEAT loads of retardant, and at present I can tell you that is estimated at 2,000 acres and running.”

Meanwhile, Dresbach says that the lightning caused Wild Horse Fire, which started last Friday 32 miles southwest of Miles City, is almost completely contained.

“We’ve got line around it about 95 percent, most of the fire activity has diminished, and shortly we will be going into a mop-up stage on the Wild Horse one.”

And the Richard Coulee fire that sparked this morning is now almost completely contained. Dresbach says ranch hands got that one under control quickly and efficiently.

“They said they had that one controlled this morning, I got the phone call about 9 o’clock, the estimated size on that one is about 500 acres.”

Dresbach is sending three ranch engines from the almost 100 percent contained Richard Coulee fire over to the Snyder Fire for support.

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