Top Five Fires Still Burning in Montana

By Beacon Staff

A cold front carrying high winds handed firefighters a mixed bag over the weekend. Some blazes blew up, burning out of control, while others quieted without putting up much of a fight. In any case, on Sunday and Monday the nation’s top five priority fires were all burning in Montana.

And it doesn’t appear that the windy conditions will cease soon. The National Weather Service in Missoula issued a red flag warning for Monday with gusts up to 40 mph expected. And in other parts of Montana, including in Northwest Montana where the Skyland and Chippy Creek blazes burn, it looks like Monday should be a quieter day, though winds promise to rouse fires again on Tuesday.

Jocko Lakes Fire, west of Seeley Lake

The Jocko Lakes Fire blew up Saturday, burning at least one home and damaging another and running to 18,000 acres. It has forced at least 200 houses to be evacuated near Placid Lake. Subdivisions of the Seeley Lake community have been evacuated, but not the town itself. Click here for the full story. It quickly became the top priority fire in the nation and attracted FEMA’s attention.

Skyland Fire, near Essex

“There’s not a whole lot of news today,” fire information officer Dale Warriner said Sunday evening of the Skyland Fire, burning near Glacier to the south-southeast between Badger Creek and Two Medicine Creek. “Everything went real well today.” The area north of BIA 2, between the South Fork of the Medicine River and BIA 1 to Two Medicine River are still evacuated.

Sunday conditions were favorable for a burnout on the east end of the fire in the South Fork Two Medicine River area. Warriner said the burnout might be a “turning point” for the 900-plus firefighters working what’s been an unruly blaze.

The fire has burned more than 32,170 acres since lightning ignited it July, 23. It’s 10 percent contained. Fire officials say the east and west ends are in pretty good shape now, which operations
personnel called “bookends” on the fire. There is still open line on the south side, but there are no residences on that side. Cattle were still being retrieved from the north and south ends fo the fire.

Officials are expecting high winds, from the southeast, to roll in Tuesday and possibly some more lightning. “It’s going to be a good test for us,” Warriner said.

Besides the evacuation order mentioned above, there are warnings and notices around the fire for residents. The are as follows. Stage 2, (evacuation warning): The area west of the South Fork Two Medicine River south of BIA 2 and south of U.S. Hwy 2. Also the area east of BIA 1 north of Heart Butte to the Two Medicine River. Level 1 (on notice to get ready for possible evacuation): The area north of the junction of BIA 2 and U.S. Hwy 2, north to and including East Glacier.

The fire is now 19 miles long. The most easterly reach of the fire is to Deep Creek Drainage on the Blackfeet Reservation, and to Mule Ridge to the west near Skyland Road.

Highway 2 is still open to traffic going both ways.

Sawmill Complex, east of Missoula

The Sawmill Complex, a complex of three fires near Rock Creek and 22 miles southeast of Missoula, grew again over the weekend to a total 10,340 acres, but it was cooled a bit by rain Sunday. The largest fire is still the Wyman 2 fire, mapped at 7,290 Sunday.

On the Wyman 2 fire, evacuations are in place along Rock Creek Road between the Sandstone/Wyman trailhead and Stony Creek as well as in the Williams Gulch and Wild Rose Loop.

On the 1,570-acre Sawmill Fire, evacuations were ordered for ten structures in the Bear Gulch Area on Saturday, while residences on Rock Creek Road from Norton Campground to one-half mile south of Brewster Creek were evacuated the day before. There, more engines are on their way to the fire to “assist the preparation for the fire’s approach to structures and Rock Creek,” according to Sunday reports.

The Fisher Point fire in the complex has blackened 1,480 acres, but is unstaffed as most of the resources have gone to the Wyman 2 and the Sawmill fires.

In total, there are 418 people working the complex with 26 engines, 9 water tenders and 2 helicopters. It has cost $1,255,000 so far to fight.

Tin Cup Fire, West of Darby

The Tin Cup Fire on the Bitterroot National Forest, about 2 and a half miles west of Darby grew from 20 to 375 acres Sunday. Three homes were evacuated Sunday night in Tin Cub and Bunkhouse. Firefighters worked into the night and managed to get in hand and dozer lines on the fire and will continue to do so Monday as helicopters drop water and retardant on the blaze.

Other homes in the area are on Stage 1 evacuation notice, meaning they should get ready in case an evacuation is ordered in the future. The areas on notice are: McIntosh, Tin Cup, and Bunkhouse areas. Ravalli County has set up an evacuation hotline at 406-375-6650.

For more on the Tin Cup Fire and other Bitterroot blazes go here and click “recent incidents.”

Meriwether Fire, north of Helena

The Meriwether Fire near Wolf Creek north of Helena is burning within the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness, and it quieted over the weekend after an active week, fire information officer Bonney McNabb said.

“We were really lucky,” she said.

The fire is mapped at 38,685 acres, 35 percent contained. The northwest flank of the fire, near Holter Lake, was holding well and both the Beartooth road and the Beaver Creek road were reopened to residents Saturday, with all evacuations lifted except for about 20 structures along Beaver Creek Road. Other residents have been warned to be ready at a moment’s notice to evacuate.

In turn, the seven mile stretch of the Missouri River between American Bar and Ming Bar, previously closed, has reopened. But Holter Lake is now closed while “super scooper” planes draw water to dump on the blaze.

Crews are beginning structure protection efforts in the Hog Back Lookout Area, where there have been reports of spotting, McNabb said.

Ahorn Fire, West of Augusta

After the Ahorn Fire’s substantial growth over the last week the weekend looked downright quiet.

The fire, burning in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Lewis and Clark National Forest 30 miles west of Augusta mostly just smoldered and “punked around” in the interior, said fire liason Warren Templeton. Higher humidity and a thick inversion kept the fire from growing from it’s estimated 43,900 acres. It remains 2 percent contained.

Most of the recent growth has been eastward, nearing Allan Mountain. The fire also pushed up the Goat Creek drainage on the northeast flank.

The fire did spot near the Sheep Shed area on the southeast side of the fire Sunday afternoon and helicopters dropped water on hot spots to slow the spread of the fire into the K Bar L Ranch to the northeast of the fire and the Game and Fish Cabin on the west side of Gibson Reservoir. Crews also continued working on a contingency line along Sawtooth Ridge on the Sun River Game Range and north toward the Deep Creek Ranch.

Evacuations remain in place for the Gibson Reservoir area, Stoner area, and Benchmark, where structure protection crews are working on summer lease cabins, homes and ranch properties.

Crews took advantage of the cooler fire weather on Sunday to make “good progress” on structure protection around the Stoner area, according to reports. They also were able to finish a fire line around the structures there.

To the South of of the fire, there are a number of structures, including about 65 summer lease cabins in the Benchmark area. There, structure protection crews continue to run hose lines and sprinkler systems into the cabins to protect them should the fire move south.

The rapid growth of both the Ahorn and the Fool Creek Fires prompted officials on the Lewis and Clark National Forest to close a large part of the Rocky Mountain Ranger District to the public. The closure went into effect early Thursday morning. Click here for a recent list of closures.

Region-by-Region breakdown:

Also, check in often to InciWeb, where the large fires are being updated from fire camp regularly. The large fires with InciWeb pages are linked in the roundup below. Click on the name of the fire for that fire’s page.

For a look at fire weather forecasts, click here and for a national breakdown of wildland fires, click here.

Stage II fire restrictions, meaning no campfires, smoking, daytime industrial operations and motor vehicle use off designated roads and trails, are in effect across western and west-central Montana. Click here for more details.

Western Montana:

The Jocko Lakes Fire has erupted, growing from 800 to about 8,000 acres by Sunday morning forcing the evacuation of at least 200 homes near Placid Lake and Seeley Lake. Click here for the full story on the Jocko Lakes blaze.

Other noteworthy Fires in Western Montana:

  • The Rombo Fire, on the Bitterroot National Forest grew to 1,550 acres. A Type II team took over the management of the fire Saturday. A pre-evacuation order is in place for residents of the road going to Painted Rock Lake, between the Rombo Creek Campground and Forest Service Road 5715. They should be prepared to leave if the blaze shifts to the west, said information officer Gail Baer.
  • The Conger Creek Fire, Lolo National Forest, 20 miles north of Ovando along Highway 200. 5,000 acres, being managed as a Wildand Fire Use fire and monitored, not actively suppressed. (Click here to learn more about Wildand Fire Use.)
  • The Mile Marker 124 Fire, north of Interstate 90 near the Rock Creek exit was quiet over the weekend and by Sunday night was 80 percent contained. The incident commander met with homeowners in the West Fork of Cramer Creek and the lower Cramer Creek area and let them return to their homes by permit only and with some restrictions. Residents in the Wallace Creek area are still on 12 to 36 hour notification in case they are asked to leave. But, the Mile Marker 124 Fire “hasn’t moved in three days,” fire information officer Laura McConnell said Sunday. The fire is holding at 6,231 acres. A Bonneville Power Administration transmission line, along I-90 that carries electricity to thousands, appears now to be out of danger, McConnell said.

    Officials are looking for more information on the cause of the Mile Marker 124 Fire, ignited by multiple starts along the westbound lane of I-90, three miles east of Clinton. Investigators ruled out lightning and believe the cause may have been mechanical or vehicular malfunction. Call (406) 542-4241 if you have any information.

Northwestern Montana:

  • The Chippy Creek Fire The Chippy Creek Fire (formerly named “Semem Creek”), 42 miles southwest of Kalispell grew dramatically Saturday, doubling in size. The blaze now totals nearly 40,000 acres after quieting a bit on Sunday, thanks to a thick layer of smoke that kept the fire close to the ground. Aircraft have not been able to monitor the fire’s spread but may do so if the inversion lifts. On the east end and of the fire crews are using bulldozers to construct containment lines on the Flathead Reservation. Crews are focusing on structure protection to the north and the east of the fire where nearly 350 homes are within seven miles of the blaze.

    Roads are closed near the fire area. Public meeting planned for Monday, August 6, at 6:00pm at the Hot Springs Public Schools old gymnasium located at 301 Broadway Street in Hot Springs.

  • The Garceau Fire, 10 miles from Polson on the Flathead Indian Reservation, had burned a total of 3,045 acres by Friday morning, 93 percent contained.
  • The Skyland Fire in the Flathead National Forest totals 30,457 acres.
  • The Brush Creek Fire, about 29 air miles west of Whitefish, MT, grew to 17,438 acres over the weekend. It is 5 percent contained. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has issued a mandatory evacuation order for the community of Star Meadow. The Good Creek Community has been put on notice to be ready should it need to evacuate. Sunday, reports said: “Firefighters are taking advantage of the predicted wind direction on the fire to construct direct and indirect fire line and assist the local fire departments with structural protection in the Star Meadow Community.”

Southwestern Montana:

Lightning, dry air and high winds “conspired to fan two new fires to life” over the weekend on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest this weekend, according to Sunday reports. Both fires, one five miles southwest of the McAtee Bridge and another five miles southwest of Wise River were controlled by Sunday.

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has a temporary closure in effect, including the area north of Lacy and McVey creeks and west of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway all the way to the forest boundary east and south of Highway 43.

Noteworthy Fires in Southwestern Montana:

  • The Pattengail Creek Fire, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest 10 miles northeast of Wisdom. 3,900 acres, 25 percent contained. Influenced by changing weather, the fire got more active over the weekend, throwing two separate spots on the eastern flank. The heavy helicopter lent to the fire Saturday, doused these new spots with water, until it was called back to Idaho to respond as initial attack on new fires there. The high gusty winds late yesterday afternoon blew these two spots together. An flyover late in the day showed new spot fires on the western side of Stine Mountain. Three spot fires have been growing on the north side of Effie Creek, north of the main fire. The heavy helicopter has been requested to return today to help retard the growth of the spot fires.
  • The Porcupine Fire, Gallatin National Forest, 124 acres at 20 percent contained. 31 miles north of Livingston. Creeping fire activity was reported.
  • The Owl Fire, burning along the Wyoming-Montana border in Yellowstone National Park, was 2,810 acres, 80 percent contained. All visitor services, park entrances and roads are open. Some trails and backcountry campsites are temporarily closed.

Central Montana:

  • Ahorn Fire, Lewis and Clark National Forest, 35 miles West of Augusta, near Benchmark. 43,900 acres.
  • The Fool Creek Fire, in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, in Bob Marshall Wilderness is now being actively managed. It acted up again Friday as a cold front passed over the area. The fire, now 29,857 acres is still nearly two miles from the Teton Pass ski area. From morning reports: Aerial reconnaissance on Sunday found the fire increasing in the upper West Fork of the Teton River, between Olney and Porcupine creeks. Fire observers also saw fire continuing to burn slowly into the Strawberry Creek area. In the southwest corner of the fire, observers noted that the Fool Creek fire was slowly burning downhill near Open Creek, hampered by reduced fuel from a previously burned area. The fire is becoming established in the South Fork of Birch Creek. But because of structures, the West Fork Teton River area is a higher priority.

    Structure protection measures have been taken at the Massey Tract, 7 Lazy P Ranch and Teton Pass Ski Area and firefighters got pumps and sprinklers running at Sabado and Wrong Creek Cabins. While there are five engines, two water tenders, and three helicopters along with a crew of 154 working the fire.

    With west winds bringing a drying and warming trend, firefighters expect the Fool Creek fire to get more active in coming days, according to morning reports. Hotter, drier weather is expected Tuesday. Under these explosively dry conditions, there’s still no opportunity for firefighters on the ground to effectively work on the fire. So for now, the strategy is to slow the fire with water and retardant dropped from the air. The fire is 0 percent contained.

  • Middle Fork Fire, Lewis and Clark National Forest, Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, 20 miles southwest of Utica. 1,146 acres and 90 percent contained. This fire is also being managed as a Wildand Fire Use fire and is burning in a remote area. It was started on June 21 by a lightning strike.

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