Firefighter safety is of particular concern on the Highway 37 Fire north of Libby because of its proximity to a patch of asbestos-contaminated forest.
Among the 50 firefighters working the blaze is a group of 10 specially trained responders. They wear respirators and undergo a full body decontamination after digging fire line in a section of forest with high levels of asbestos fibers, a harmful remnant of the old W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.
Nathan Gassmann, the Kootenai National Forest’s District Ranger in Libby, says firefighters are especially at risk.
"If we have firefighters that are on the line and they are in the ash and in the thick of it as they say, being active and putting these fires out, we're having those folks in the respirators. So they’ve gone through the different aspects of how to use them, what to do if something breaks and all those sorts of things."
Asbestos fibers have settled in tree bark and in the duff layer on the ground, and don’t pose a threat unless they’re disturbed. Inhalation can cause mesothelioma or lung cancer, but Gassmann says the general public is not at risk at this time.
"Every fire situation has its own unique logistics concerns. This just happens to be one that we have to deal with here."
Gassmann says an additional 10-20 firefighters from the Kootenai National Forest have voluntarily taken the training. He adds it takes another team in tyvek suits to hose firefighters down after their eight-hour shift in the respirators.
Fire crews from the Forest Service and Libby Volunteer Fire Department spent today laying hose line and dousing hot spots while helicopters waged an aerial bombardment, dropping tens of thousands of gallons of water and retardant to stymie the blaze.
Crews from the nearby Zulu Fire, a 20-acre fire that’s about 30 percent contained, were pulled to help out.
Gassmann says firelines were holding this afternoon even as the winds picked up. He says volunteer firefighters’ initial attack helped keep the blaze manageable.
"We probably would have been in a different position had we not had such quick response with the volunteers and the other folks' helicopters showing up right away."
Crews are expecting a cold front to move in tonight carrying shifting gusting winds. The fire is threatening power lines but no structures There’s no timeline for containment.