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

Montana Wildfire Roundup for August 13, 2018

The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park as seen from Apgar Beach, August 12, 2018.
Glacier National Park
The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park as seen from Apgar Beach, August 12, 2018.

Update 5:22 p.m.

Officials in Glacier National Park now say that, “a number of structures were lost last night” in the Howe Ridge wildfire that was sparked by lighting Saturday.

They estimate the size of the fire on the north end of Lake McDonald at 1,500 to 2,500 acres and have offered no estimate of containment. A press release says two water scooping aircraft are drawing water from Lake McDonald and, along with a helicopter are “working to establish a secure anchor point from which to fight the fire.”

Kalispell Photographer Philip Granrud went into the park Saturday night trying to photograph a meteor shower. He said the fire didn’t look like a big deal Sunday morning until about 11 a.m., when strong winds started to drive it.

"As soon as it hit that large swath of dead trees it just took off, and I knew right then and there there was no way they were going to be able to get a handle on it," he says.

At about 8 p.m. Sunday, the Park initiated what it called a “very rapid” evacuation of about 50 homesites on the north end of the lake, the 82-room McDonald Lake Lodge and nearby Avalanche Creek campground, which has about 87 campsites.  This morning they also evacuated Sprage campground, which has about 25 sites.

Saturday’s weather system also sparked fires outside Helena and in Madison County, where the Haypress Lakes subdivision was evacuated yesterday due to the Wigwam Fire. That order currently affects 4 people and 15 structures. Ennis High School has been established as a Red Cross shelter, additional homes in the area are in evacuation warning status.

South of Lincoln, an area closure and a pre-evacuation notice are in effect due to the Trail 467 Fire, discovered August 11. The pre-evacuation notice is for residents in the McQuithy Gulch and Marsh Creek areas. Fire Information Officer Kathy Bushnell says things are looking well on the fire after today's cooler temperatures. The fire is now reported at 60 percent contained.

Update 12:30 p.m.

A Type 1 Incident Management Team will arrive at noon Wednesday, August 15, to oversee firefighting operations on the Coal Ridge, Paola Ridge, Howe Ridge and other area fires in the Flathead National Forest.

The Coal Ridge Fire five miles west of Polebridge continues to burn more than 300 acres through steep terrain in subalpine forest and brushy avalanche chutes. Local heavy equipment is starting to construct a fuel break today. Additional resources have been requested. No evacuation orders are in place at this time.

The Paola Ridge Fire is burning about 50 acres two miles northwest of Essex. Today heavy ground equipment will continue building a fuel break near the railroad and Highway 2. Additional resources have been requested. Some forest roads and trails south of Highway 2 are closed.

The Brownstone Fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness was moderately active Sunday, gaining ground up the southeast face of Brown Sandstone Peak. The lightning-caused fire is estimated to be a bit more than 1,600 acres. Crews will begin setting up structure protection equipment at the Big Prairie Work Center today. Big Prairie is a major center of U.S. Forest Service operations for the South Fork area, with several structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also has corrals, dispersed camping and is actively used for administrative purposes.

The northwest interagency zone, which includes lands on the Flathead National Forest, Kootenai National Forest, Flathead County, Lincoln County and Montana DNRC’s Northwest Land Office will enter Stage 2 fire restrictions at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, August 16. That means no campfires, period. Smoking is only allowed in an enclosed vehicle or building. Operating a chainsaw during the heat of the day is prohibited, as is discharging a firearm or setting off fireworks.

Yesterday the Bitterroot National Forest reported seven new fires caused by dry lightning storms Saturday afternoon. All but one of those fires were estimated at a tenth of an acre, and are located on the Darby/Sula Ranger District, in the Sapphire Mountains east/northeast of Connor, MT.

The largest fire, at 0.75 acres was reported controlled yesterday afternoon.

Update 11:55 a.m.

Madison County Emergency Management this morning saidthe lightning caused Wigwam Fire “was detected on August 11, 2018. Infrared mapping last evening more accurately mapped the fires perimeter at 1,969 acres. It is located in the Wigwam drainage. Fire suppression activities today will continue to check the fires progress towards the Haypress subdivision with bucket drops and retardant. Engine crews will continue structure protection and assist in evacuations if necessary.

“A Unified Command of Forest Service and Madison County has been established to manage [the Wigwam and] the lightning caused Monument Fire (detected on August 6, 2018). Infrared mapping last evening more accurately mapped the {Monument] fire’s perimeter at 4,215 acres. Suppression activities today include identifying indirect line locations and checking the progress with helicopter bucket drops and retardant. The fire is burning in whitebark pine and sub-alpine fir, with approximately 70 percent mortality, at an elevation of 9,000 feet.

“Resources currently assigned [to both fires] include 13 engines, 5 water tenders, strike team of heavy equipment and 78 firefighters. A Type 3 light helicopter has been assigned to the fire and a Type 1 (Heavy) is doing bucket work. The Type 3 Incident Management Team currently assigned to the fire will be transitioning later this week with a Type 2 IMT.

“Evacuations – Haypress Lakes subdivision was evacuated August 12. The Ennis High School has been established as a Red Cross evacuation center. There is currently an Evacuation Order for the Haypress Lakes road and Boiler springs from the Y (in the road) to the west (BLM). There is also an Evacuation Warning from the Y (in the road) southeast to the Shining Mt. Subdivision.

“Closures - The Johnny Ridge and Gravelly Range roads are closed through to Black Butte. A larger area closure has been identified and will be implemented in the near future to protect public safety.”

Kootenai National Forest

Lightning sparked five new fires northeast of the Tenmile Fire Saturday night. Three have been dubbed the Sterling Complex (544 acres, zero percent contained) and are being managed together with the Tenmile Fire (679 acres, 30 percent contained). Fire crews were successful holding lines on the Tenmile Fire this weekend and will continue to mop up hot spots and hold the line today.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued a pre-evacuation notice at 9:30 p.m. Saturday for Edna Creek Road, Lake Creek Road, Sutton Ridge Road and Swamp Creek Road. Residents in that area remain in “set” mode and need to be prepared to evacuate on short notice with important belongings, medicines and pets ready to go. Firefighters will visit private property owners today in the Edna Creek, Lake Creek and Swamp Creek areas for assessments and to gather information for structure defense plans.

The Davis Fire northwest of Yaak slowed in growth Sunday, adding a little more than 200 acres. It’s estimated to be 5,479 acres and five percent contained. Firefighters plan to extend a southern line to tie into natural rock scree at the fire’s southwest corner today. A parallel contingency line south of the fire will be improved down to Davis Creek. A small crew will set up structure protection at Garver Lookout’s tower and cabin as a precaution if the fire moves farther east. Another crew with equipment was assigned to the initial attack on the 15-acre Surprise Gulch Fire yesterday and were able to dig line around it.

The Kootenai National Forest remains under Stage 1 fire restrictions. That means campfires can only be made in permanent fire pits or within fire grates at a developed recreation site.

Updated at 10:45 a.m.

Glacier National Park

The Howe Ridge Fire prompted evacuations at about 87 campsites at Avalanche Campground, 82 rooms at the McDonald Lake Lodge, about 50 private residences at the north end of Lake McDonald and other park visitors and employees between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday. Fire managers indicate that structures on the north end of Lake McDonald were lost but no additional details have been released. A Flathead County structural fire task force provided "significant" response.

The 25-site Sprague Creek Campground is being evacuated today.

Going-To-The-Sun Road is closed from the western foot of Lake McDonald near Apgar to Logan Pass. Several trails, including the Loop Trail, are closed at this time. For more information about park closures, visit the park website. Apgar Village and the east side of Glacier National Park remain unaffected by wildfires.

The Howe Ridge Fire exhibited extreme fire behavior last night, igniting spot fires half a mile away. The fire is calmer this morning but conditions remain very dry. 

Glacier National Park will enter Stage 2 fire restrictions at midnight Monday. That means no campfires in the front or backcountry and no outdoor smoking. Propane stoves with an on/off switch are permitted.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reports: “A lighting storm across the Helena area late Saturday afternoon has left several new fires in its wake. Nationwide and across the region resources are in high demand and firefighters are stretched thin. Two new fires are currently burning north of Helena with DNRC supporting the efforts of state, federal, county and landowner resources.

Shellrock Fire

The Shellrock fire sent up a plume of dark smoke visible on the horizon north of Helena on Sunday afternoon. The Shellrock fire is burning in heavy timber near border between the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area and Sieben Livestock Company ranchlands. The fire is approximately 5 miles north of Beaver Creek Road, and two miles west of Middle Creek Lake on the Sieben Livestock Company ranch.

Firefighting efforts: The fire began as a lightning strike on the afternoon of Saturday August 11. Initial attack efforts began that evening, but personnel could not reach the fire and engage until the morning of Sunday August 12. By nightfall on Sunday 14 U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers were working on the fire with one DNRC engine crew providing support as well. Two Single Engine Air Tankers also worked on the fire Sunday.

Land Ownership: Currently the fire is actively burning on the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Beartooth WMA and on the Sieben Livestock Company ranch.

Size: The most recent estimate for the Shellrock fire is approximately 125 acres, though heavy tree cover, thick smoke, and active spotting make an exact size estimate difficult.

Terrain: The Shellrock fire is burning in steep, remote country with extremely difficult access. Initial fire activity was concentrated in high elevation sparse subalpine fir timber, but the fire has spread downhill to the east into heavy timber. This heavy fuel and steep terrain hinders firefighting efforts and reinforces firefighter safety as a paramount concern.

Resources threatened: The fire is currently in position to threaten a high-voltage powerline which runs north-south approximately 1.5 miles east of the fire. In addition, the fire could threaten at least two ranch cabins and the historic Hump Cabin on Sieben Livestock Company lands. The fire has already impacted the grazing and timber lands of all affected landowners.

Outlook: The DNRC has mobilized the DNRC County Assist (CAT) Incident Management Team which will start arriving on Monday morning. The CAT Team consists of various skilled professionals who provide logistical support to firefighting efforts. This Incident Management Team will help to coordinate firefighting efforts between agency resources and landowners and provide an organizational structure to help fight the fire. This incident management structure is particularly valuable in effectively utilizing the limited firefighting resources available, and in providing logistics considering the fire’s limited access and remote nature.

Fire personnel have ordered heavy equipment and hand crews, however due to the high demand for resources, there is no firm timeline for the arrival of any new resources. Firefighters hope to have slight break in the weather on Monday with slightly cooler temperatures but temperatures are forecast to rise again as the week progresses.

Cuniff Basin Fire

The Cuniff Basin Fire was discovered Sunday August 12th and is burning in the Cuniff Basin area approximately 4 miles South of Bean Lake between Highway 200 and Augusta. Presently the fire is being fought with County and DNRC resources including a DNRC helicopter. The fire is estimated at 40 acres, Monday should bring more information concerning the status of the fire and firefighting resources.

The Bacon Rind Fire 20 miles south of Big Sky is burning 1,321 acres in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. Lightning started this fire on August. 13. 

Fire mangers report, "fire growth was observed 8/10- 8/12 due to high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds. Fire growth was mainly on the northern and southern ends of the fire. Moderate growth was seen on the east side of the fire towards Highway 191.

Monsoonal moisture will affect the fire through Monday night bringing isolated showers and thunderstorms. A ridge of high pressure will bring dry weather Tuesday and Wednesday. There is an increased chance of showers and thunderstorms Thursday and Friday."

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