Thunderstorms Spark, Fan Montana Fires

By Beacon Staff

Thunderstorms rolled across Montana this weekend, sparking more than 20 new fires and fanning the fires already burning east of the Divide on the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The Ahorn Fire, burning 35 air miles West of Augusta on the Lewis and Clark National Forest grew from 600 acres to an estimated 4,000 acres, helped by high winds. Firefighters were pulled, for safety reasons, from the fire as it grew in “all directions,” under a thunderstorm, said Fire Information Officer Jack de Golia.

The forest is dense and dry and ripe for signature Rocky Mountain Front winds, making the fire “difficult to deal with,” de Golia said.

“It is prone in places to have huge winds and when things are dry, it can be really volatile,” de Golia said.

The fire was 60 percent contained earlier in the weekend and crews were hopeful they’d have it fully contained (line all the way around it) soon. But, Sunday afternoon’s fire behavior changed those plans.

“We’d like to put this fire out, but at this point, given all the ‘fuel’ and the weather, it’s going to be real hard to do that. Nature is in charge right now,” Incident Commander Dave Larsen said in a report Sunday night.

Larsen’s team is making plans to work with local officials for longer-term contingency plans, although the fire is still at least 15-20 air miles from private land.

“There’s no need to panic, but we need to thoughtfully plan ahead for the fire going north or east,” Larsen said. “We have the time to do that.”

To the fire’s east is private land and to it’s south southeast—about seven air miles—is the end of Benchmark road, which is dotted with Forest Service lease cabins and inholdings.

There are 77 firefighters on the blaze and two helicopters dropping water. But, even the bucket drops aren’t doing much in this hot and dry weather, de Golia said. Most of the water is evaporating before it hits the ground.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the Divide, initial attack crews were busy Sunday. The Bitterroot Valley alone saw 17 new starts—nearly all 1/10 of an acre—on both private and public land. Here’s a quick rundown of the noteworthy fires:

* The Harlan Gulch Fire, burning north east of Darby grew quickly Sunday and grew to an estimated 35 acres. Helicopters dropped water and retardant Sunday while crews worked the ground. This may be a holdover from Friday’s storm.
* The Michael Fire, also sparked on Friday, grew to about 60 acres Sunday. Crews have helicopter and air tanker help on the fire, which is burning on the CB ranch southeast of Darby.
* There are five small fires burning in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and they are being managed as Wildland Fire Use fires, meaning they are being managed, not actively suppressed.

(A Wildland Fire Use team is also managing the now 5,430-acre Fool Creek Fire burning on the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness more than 35 miles West of Choteau. Click here for more information on Wildand Fire Use teams.)

There was some smoke in the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys Sunday, but Bitterroot National Forest spokeswoman Nan Christianson said in a report Sunday that the smoke may be drifting in from several large fires in Idaho or from Nevada or Utah fires.

In southwest Montana, at least seven fires are burning, the largest being the three-day-old Patengail Creek Fire, which, under high winds, doubled on Sunday to an estimated 1,100 acres 10 miles north northeast of Wisdom. Helicopters and air tankers were dropping water and retardant on the fire over the weekend, but no crews were on the ground because there are no escape routes or safety zones in the area. Two Hot Shot crews were heading into the area Sunday to try to start anchoring a line from the Upper Stone Lake.

Other fires in southwestern Montana include:

* The Perry Canyon Fire, south of Whitehall, has burned 20 acres. Fire officials say they can keep the fire contained and crews have the help of one helicopter and fire engines.
* The Painter Creek Fire is two acres about 10 miles northwest of Grant. Fire engines and Missoula smokejumpers are fighting the blaze.
* The Moose Horn Fire, 15 miles west of Wisdom is one-half acre and being fought by one Hot Shot crew.
* The Twin Adams Fire is one-half acre 15 miles northwest of Dillon in the Birch
Creek area. Fire engines and one helicopter are working the fire.
* The Baldy Fire is one-tenth of an acre, 5 miles south of Red Rocks Refuge, close to the Idaho border.

More hot and dry weather is on it’s way this week for the state, which is already off to an early fire season.

“It’s going to be a long summer,” de Golia said.

Fire offiicals often talk about their hopes for a “season-ending” event—meaning enough moisture and cool enough weather to naturally calm the fires—and that usually comes around Labor Day, de Golia said.

“Labor day is quite a ways off,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough fire season in this part of the world.”

If you’re interested in tracking this season’s wildfires, InciWeb (www.inciweb.org) is updated regularly with new information from the fire camps of large fires in the nation.

Locally, the Bitterroot Dispatch Center has a handy Web site with recent incidents. (http://63.196.254.151/WildWeb/WCMT-BRC.htm)

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