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

Montana Wildfire Update For August 20, 2020

Montana Wildfire News

A wildfire that has blackened the base of Mount Sentinel east of the University of Montana is now 75 percent contained, according to a 9 p.m. update from UM.

The fire is burning east of Pioneer Court along the hill’s southern edge. At least two helicopters were dumping buckets of water on the blaze. The fire's growth is stalled out for now, according to the Missoula fire chief.

A helicopter drops water on a fire burning on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, August 20, 2020.
Credit Charles Bolte
A helicopter drops water on a fire burning on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, August 20, 2020.

The University of Montana police Department and Missoula City fire request everyone stays off the mountain and away from the area. The “M” Trail is closed until further notice. All eastbound traffic on South Ave. at Arthur has been stopped. All south bound traffic on Maurice at East Sussex has been stopped, according to an 8 p.m. alert from UM.

The fire, which is burning in grass, was first reported at 6:10 this evening and was initialy throwing up a large column of smoke.

Montana firefighters continue squashing small wildfires before they can blow up into large incidents.

The Missoula-based Northern Rockies Coordination Center dispatched crews for 47 initial attacks Wednesday — among the most so far this year. Fire officials say the quick dowsing is especially important this year to minimize the transmission of COVID 19 among firefighters. An outbreak could hamstring crews during the peak fire season.

The National Interagency Fire Center says the wildfire danger is escalating in several western states.

Fire agencies have lots of eyes scanning for smoke, and confirmed fires are getting hit hard and fast.

A series of thunderstorms helped spark at least 22 new, large fires in eight Western states on Thursday. More than 200 lightning bolts peppered western Montana this week leading to dozens of new starts. Fast action over the last few days has kept most new starts under a tenth of an acre in size.

NIFC rates Montana’s ‘Significant Wildland Fire Potential’ as above normal this month. The National Weather Service suggests the hottest weather of the summer may be behind us, but no major precipitation is on the horizon.

Montana’s relatively quiet fire season has spared us from any widespread wildfire smoke problems. But smoke coming from massive fires in Northern California led to Montana’s first significant smoke event this week.

Smokey skies made for a spectacular red and pink sunset over parts of western Montana Wednesday night.
But by Thursday morning that  gave way to a ruddy, gray haze. Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield says most of the smoke is coming from California.

"We’re still probably a month out from a true season-ending event, but considering that we could have had several weeks of smoke at this point, I’m very happy that we have managed to dodge it."

State air quality fluctuated all day Thursday.

Dillon, for example, started with good air quality, but by late afternoon had deteriorated to ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’.

Broadus, feeling the effects of a 25,000 acre wildfire in Wyoming, had the most dramatic swings. That southeastern Montana community started in the good air quality category, dropped into unhealthy air by mid-day before recovering into moderate territory by evening.

Coefield urges Montanans to brace for changing conditions and to have a plan if air quality deteriorates.
Visit for smoke-related information and ideas.

There was little activity to report on the Bear Creek Fire burning in the Lemhi Pass area. Crews continue to reinforce and hold the line on the nearly 7,900 acre fire. Fire officials expect active fire behavior Friday as winds in the area pick up.

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Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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