Wildfire Activity Expected to Increase

By Beacon Staff

The Northern Rockies of Montana appeared atop the latest national situation report for priority wildfire activity, with nine new fires reported and 12 uncontained large fires still active as crews in the state braced for volatile conditions.

Red flag warnings were in effect across Montana following the forecasted arrival of high temperatures, gusting winds and active lightning early this week. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed an executive order on Aug. 3 declaring emergency in the southeastern and south-central regions where hazardous fire conditions exist.

Locally the National Weather Service expected dry thunderstorms to sweep over the Kootenai and Flathead national forests, Glacier National Park and Flathead Indian Reservation on Aug. 6. Winds were expected to gust up to 30 mph. Temperatures in Kalispell were forecasted in the 90s all week before dropping to the low 80s starting Aug. 13.

“We’re definitely starting to turn the corner and we are now in high fire danger and seeing more activity,” said Jeremy Pris, fire program manager for the Kalispell Unit of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“We had that wet spring so I think a lot of people weren’t thinking about fires but now we definitely have to start thinking about it.”

While local resources continue to ship across the state supporting larger efforts, local initial attack crews have been busy following a lightning storm and illegal burning. DNRC crews suppressed a half-acre holdover fire in Whitefish Hills that emerged days after an Aug. 2 lightning storm. Crews in Glacier National Park successfully stamped out two small lightning-caused fires last week.

Firefighters have also been chasing illegal burns throughout the valley.

“We’re trying to remind everyone that no burning is allowed in Flathead County during July, August and September,” Pris said.

There are no campfire restrictions in place in Northwest Montana.

The largest local fire remains the Prisoner Lake Fire, 25 miles east of Condon in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. When the Beacon went to print Aug. 6, the fire had reached 3,333 acres but had not shown any significant growth in recent days, according to the Flathead National Forest.

Crews managing the fire for suppression were continuing efforts to maintain the current perimeter and prevent growth along Brownstone Creek toward the South Fork Flathead River near Big Prairie Work Center. Adjacent spot fires were successfully suppressed in recent days. The fire’s northern perimeter remains the most active. Trail closures are in effect along the South Fork of the White River and White River Pass. For a complete list of trail statuses, visit www.inciweb.org.

Local crews are having similar success on the 47-acre Condon Mountain Fire, burning almost four miles northeast of Condon. Activity has been minimal thanks to relatively wet conditions but fire managers expected sporadic spikes in the coming days. Crews have successfully boxed in the fire thanks to a fireline along the north and south perimeters and a fuel break completed along National Forest System Road 10513 with heavy equipment. These fuel breaks have tied in with a natural rocky barrier on the east perimeter. One trail – Trail #29, or the Smith-Little Salmon Trail – remains closed to public use between Smith Creek Trailhead and the junction with Trail #25. This closure will likely be lifted if fire activity remains minimal, according to the national forest.

The Elbow Pass Complex, consisting of four fires inside the Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, is almost 16,000 acres and the growth potential is considered high. Crews have been hampered by extremely difficult terrain and heavy fuels. The complex is 25 miles southwest of Augusta.

The Bar Creek Fire, inside the complex, has burned almost 200 acres in the Flathead National Forest. Crews have begun structure protection at the Danaher and Basin Cabins. Trails have been closed east of Seeley Lake in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses near the western perimeter of the fire.

July was the warmest in five years across Montana, according to the National Weather Service. Through last month this has been the driest water year since 2008. The state’s soil moisture content is also the driest since 2007.

Montana has had two of the seven largest fires in the country this summer. The Ash Creek Complex, burning almost 250,000 acres in the Custer National Forest near Lame Deer, has been controlled and contained. Rehabilitation efforts are underway. It currently ranks fifth in the U.S. for size.

The largest active fire in the state, the Rosebud Creek Complex, is over 166,00 acres and remains extremely volatile. As of Aug. 6, crews had contained 25 percent of the complex, which consists of six fires. Almost 800 personnel are involved. The fire is burning east of Billings.

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