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

Montana Wildfire Roundup for July 30, 2019

North Hills fire briefing at the Helena Valley Community Center Monday, July 29
Corin Cates-Carney
North Hills fire briefing at the Helena Valley Community Center Monday, July 29

Updated 4:50 p.m.

A little after 4 p.m. the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s office Facebook page announced a new evacuation due to a new wildfire for the Beaver Creek area near Nelson. It says a roadblock is in place at the York Bar preventing traffic from traveling north. Travel is still permitted east toward Vigilante Campground.

Updated 4:25 p.m.

Firefighters are responding to several reports of fires on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. At least one small blaze is being attacked from both the ground and the air.

Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest firefighters and Flathead National Forest hotshots responded to the 1-3 acre Dalton Fire southeast of Lincoln today. Responders on the ground were just arriving on the scene late in the afternoon. 

“We have air tankers and a helicopter assigned to the fire to help the ground resources kind of slow the fire activity there," says Spokesperson Kathy Buschnell.

The Helena Ranger District also received four other reports of wildfires in the Big Belt and Elk Horn mountain ranges. “We are responding to all four of those fire reports and they’re all what we can best tell from the storm that just recently passed over the area,” says Buschnell.

All of those blazes were reported to be five acres or less.

Firefighters in the Flathead National Forest contained a fire in the Tally Lake Ranger District Tuesday morning. The fire was under an acre and is thought to be lightning-caused from a storm last week.

Updated 3:57 p.m.

The lightning-caused Bannack Fire in Beaverhead County is now 100 percent contained. Rachel Cramer with Yellowstone Public Radio News reports that it burned 151 acres of grass, sage and timber near the ghost town of Bannack before crews contained it this afternoon.

John Grassy, spokesperson for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said, “We continue to see pretty active fire weather. There’s again a chance of thunderstorms with minimal amounts of rain and dusty winds and lightning. So that will be a concern, not only for this fire but for potential fire starts.”

He says Wednesday crews will be released and equipment will be removed.

The fire will go on patrol status, meaning it will be monitored to make sure there are no lingering hot spots.

Updated 2:41 p.m.

The team fighting the Beeskove Fire in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area about five miles northeast of Missoula said this morning: “The warmer and dry weather led to moderate fire growth yesterday. Some uphill runs and group tree torching were witnessed within the fire’s perimeter. According to last night’s infrared flight, the fire grew by 29 acres bringing the total acreage up to 211.

“Firefighters were successful with establishing an indirect fire line from Rattlesnake Creek up to the southwestern corner of the fire. This will allow firefighters to use hand firing operations with the supporting hose lay to create a barrier to fire spread in that area of the fire along Rattlesnake Creek. Containment is still 0 percent.

“Opportunities to engage ground resources on the fire’s edge do not currently exist due to the steep, rugged terrain the fire is located in. Today, crews will start constructing an indirect fire line from Rattlesnake Creek up to the ridge top south and west of the fire. Helicopters are available to support fire crews to slow the fire’s growth.

“More resources are arriving on the fire as the Type 3 team plans for how to engage the fire safely in the coming days. Four Hotshot crews, two Type II crews, and six helicopters (three Type 1, two Type 2, and one Type 3) are working to contain the fire under a full suppression strategy. Currently, there are 175 personnel assigned to the fire. No structures are threatened at this time.

“’Firefighters continue to engage and suppress this fire when and where it is safe to do so and where they can be successful,’ said Jennifer Hensiek, Missoula District Ranger. ‘Due to the location in the steep and rugged terrain, it is likely this will take a longer effort by crews and fire managers to establish containment. We continue to work closely our partners at Missoula County, Montana DNRC, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and The Nature Conservancy to assess where firefighters can engage this challenging fire.’

“The area closure remains in place for the Rattlesnake Recreation Area which includes the Horse Trailhead, and numerous trails.

“Smoke may be visible from the upper Rattlesnake area, Missoula, Bonner, and Seeley Lake. Currently, smoke is drifting north, east and south.

Today (weather) will be similar as to what occurred on Monday. Starting the day off with a few clouds, then cumulus build ups developing in the afternoon and evening. No showers or thunderstorms expected over the fire, the convection will be further south. West-northwest winds are forecasted to develop in the afternoon and evening. Gusts up to 20-35 mph at the mid slopes and higher are possible between 1700-2100 local. Wednesday will be slightly drier in the terms of lower Minimum Relative Humidity values…. Winds will be lighter, and out of the southwest.

For continued updates please visit InciWeb at and follow the Lolo National Forest on Facebook @lolonationalforest and on Twitter @LoloNF.

Updated 1:49 p.m.

The latest update from the team fighting the North Hills Fire this morning says that yesterday morning, “Mike Almas’ Type 2 Incident Management Team assumed command of the North Hills Fire."

A link to the latest map of the North Hills Fire is available here.

“Yesterday, crews continued structure protection in the Black Sandy Loop area and were able to contain a small spot fire in that general area. Structure protection activities continued through the night. At this time, no structures have been lost. Fire activity increased in the afternoon in Foster Gulch continuing to make its way toward the Missouri River. Crews took advantage of air support to work on direct line construction along the fire’s northern and southern perimeter. Numerous aircraft are aiding firefighters via helicopter water drops to help cool hotspots and retardant drops to slow fire spread.

“Today, firefighters will continue to engage the fire and construct direct line where feasible along the western and northwestern fire perimeter. Crews will look for direct line opportunities on the northeastern and eastern edge of the fire around Foster Gulch where the fire has potential to spot across the river. Mop up activities continue along the southwestern edge of the fire and around structures on Black Sandy Loop. Wildland and structural firefighters will continue to provide point protection to structures and infrastructure. Air support will continue to support crews on the ground.

“Private property, structures, and infrastructure in the Timber Trail area, El Dorado Heights, and American Bar area are threatened. Additionally, grazing lands, recreational improvements along the Missouri River (White Sandy Campground, Black Sandy Campground), and potentially power lines in the vicinity could be threatened.

“Residents in the Timber Trail, El Dorado Heights, and American Bar areas are still under evacuation orders. All residents in the immediate vicinity of this fire are strongly encouraged to sign up for reverse 911 at, should the need for further evacuations be warranted. All BLM lands in the vicinity are closed, and some road and area closures are also in effect to provide for public safety. Residents in the general vicinity should remain vigilant and refer to the Lewis and Clark County Emergency Management and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page for any status updates. See the closures tab on for more details.”

The fire received minimal amounts of rain with yesterday’s evening thunderstorm. National Weather Service is predicting a Red Flag Warning again today until 9 p.m. Temperatures will be in the upper-80s to mid-90s with humidity near 15%. Afternoon thunderstorms will move into the area, bringing the potential for very strong outflow winds with gusts up to 50mph.

Updated 1:29 p.m.

A public meeting for the North Hills Fire will be held Wednesday, July 31, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. at the Helena Valley Community Center, 3552 Tizer Road.

Lewis and Clark County is expected to issue a Declaration of Emergency this morning for the North Hills Fire. That will allow the state to access money approved by the federal government Sunday to assist with firefighting costs.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says he expects the declaration to be issued at 9 this morning.

“The county commission needs to declare an emergency, that’s in order to levy an additional two mills, but it also has to be there so we can take advantage of the FEMA declaration," Dutton said. 

Dutton says FEMA authorized the federal funds to help with the firefighting costs, "as fast as I’ve ever seen."

At the time FEMA authorized the funds around 600 homes in Lewis and Clark County were threatened.

Dutton told more than a hundred people gathered for a fire briefing in the Helena Valley Community Center Monday night that declaring an emergency is a procedural step, and not a sign of a new and catastrophic development on the North Hills fire.

The FEMA funds are available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs.

Fire officials released this map of the North Hills Fire this morning.
Credit InciWeb
Fire officials released this map of the North Hills Fire this morning.

Dutton and other public safety officials in Helena last night thanked the public for their cooperation with evacuation orders, and warned about unpredictable fire behavior in the coming days.

More than a hundred people sat in rows of folding chairs in the Helena Valley Community Center at 6:00 last night, just as strong gusty winds started to blow through the North Hills fire.

“The biggest thing that we have is what is right outside right now. That black cloud there. It's a thunderstorm," said Matt Butler, a fire behavior analyst with the team fighting the fire.

A link to the latest map of the North Hills Fire is available here.

Last night’s winds were from a favorable direction, generally blowing away from houses on the fires immediate southern perimeter. The fire only grew by an estimated 200 acres, the slowest rate of growth since it started from an unknown source Friday afternoon. It’s now estimated at 4,668 acres.

But Butler said it’s hard to tell where winds might go in coming days. Today's forecast includes a red flag warning from noon to 9 p.m. That means the possibility of gusty erratic winds from a mix of wet and dry thunderstorms, and the possibility of new lightning caused fires.

“If there’s a thunderstorm, what happens is those winds come down and they go out every direction," Butler said, "and depending on where your thunderstorm is and where you are relative to it, will depend which way the wind blows, you can’t predict it."

Butler says the fire looks like it wants to grow the most in the east and northeast, toward the Missouri River. “And the biggest threat is, is it going to jump the river?" Butler said. "And we’re modeling stuff and there is a chance it could jump the river.”

That would threaten homes already under evacuation orders issued this weekend.

Sheriff Dutton brought up a point reinforced by several officials throughout the evening, saying thanks to people in the room for leaving their property when the evacuation orders were issued.

“When you get home, I want you to look to see where the black is," Dutton said, "and I want you to sit and think about the wise decision you made not to be there. Because I want to see where that fire was and I want you to image  where that smoke was. And the people in California that died because they didn’t do what you have done, made the decision to evacuate.”

Some, like Barb Schafer, said they were hesitant to evacuate.

“Yeah, we were going to stay and kind of hold out a while and see if maybe things would kind of calm down a little bit, enough," she said. "Once I saw the flames coming up over the ridge, close by, then I decided to leave.”

Schafer says the in-person meeting with fire officials last night helped her comfort with the situation.

“You know the websites you look and you can kind of read, whatever, but when you’re actually hearing from the people that are on it and what they’re really doing and kinda where they hope it’s going, it’s just feels more comforting," she said.

Schafer says her home near Black Sandy State Park has had a few scares with fires in the past, but the North Hills fire is by far the worst.

Gwen Hageman was out of state when the evacuation was ordered and just got back into town Monday afternoon.

>She also said the briefing helped her understand what was going on with the fire.

“It was very informative, and one of the gentlemen came and talked to me afterwards and answered questions. He had actually driven up our road so he knew the situation as of this afternoon, that was very helpful," Hageman said.

Another public meeting on the North Hills Fire is scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday July 31 at the Helena Valley Community Center at 7 p.m.

Get the latest wildfire, fire management and air quality news for Western Montana and the Northern Rockies, on your radio during our morning and evening newscasts, via podcast, or in your inbox each day.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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