Increased Fire Activity Expected as Warm Weather Returns

A fire weather watch has been issued for Northwest Montana for Monday afternoon

By Justin Franz and Molly Priddy
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 21, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated Aug. 23, 11:15 a.m.

Firefighters across Northwest Montana are preparing for increased fire activity as warm and windy weather is set to return to the region on Monday.

The National Weather Service in Missoula issued a fire weather watch for Monday afternoon ending the temporary reprieve that was brought in by a cold front on Friday. The increased temperatures are expected to fuel the dozens of fires that have blanketed the region with thick smoke in recent days.

The Sheep Fire has gained the most attention in recent days as it threatens the community of Essex and two critical transportation corridors, U.S. Highway 2 and BNSF Railway’s transcontinental main line. On Saturday, the fire had grown to 581 acres and was about a mile away from Essex. Local residents were given a pre-evacuation notice late last week and have been told they may have to leave the area should the fire rapidly grow.

U.S. Highway 2 and the rail line were both closed late last week, but as of Sunday morning, traffic was moving along both corridors. The Montana Department of Transportation was warning motorist to expect delays along U.S. Highway 2 and that pilot cars are being used in the area.

On Sunday, firefighters were hoping to start work on a fire line on the northeast side of the fire to prevent it from spreading to the railroad or highway. The fire currently threatens more than 200 structures, including a railroad trestle and snow shed.

A public meeting about the fire will be held on Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex.

There are two other fires that are part of the Thompson-Divide Complex. The Thompson Fire has burned more than 14,000 acres north of Nyack inside Glacier National Park and threatens two backcountry cabins. The Granite Fire, near Marias Pass, has burned 176 acres. Three fire engines will be working the fire on Sunday.

Further west, the fires of the Clark Fork Complex have burned more than 12,000 acres along the Montana-Idaho border and forced the evacuation of dozens of homes along the Bull River, north of Noxon.

The biggest threat in Montana, the Napoleon Fire, has burned more than 2,600 acres. The lightning-caused fire continues to burn in heavy timber and jumped containment lines and is now creeping onto private property along the valley floor, according to Public Information Office John Head. On Friday, a Type II incident management took control of the Napoleon Fire and nearly a dozen other blazes along the Montana-Idaho border. Closer to the border, the Sawtooth Fire has burned more than 2,100 acres The nearby Hamilton Fire has burned more than 900 acres as of Friday afternoon and the Star Gulch Fire has burned more than 500 acres. The largest fire in the complex, is the Scotchman Peak Fire, burning 2,600 acres in Montana and Idaho.

On the Flathead National Forest, the Bear Creek Fires continue to chew through land east of Swan Lake. As of Sunday morning, the Bear Creek Fire, is the largest fire in the state, torching more than 18,000 acres. The fire burned through the Meadow Creek Trailhead, one of the most popular trailheads used to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Officials said crews were able to hustle 70 pack animals out of the trailhead in an hour before the flames came through.

Al Koss of the Spotted Bear Ranger District said some outfitters lost some gear, including saddles and tack, and the fire also burned a couple of sheds, two old trucks, and one Subaru. Otherwise, fuel-reduction thinning projects were successful in sparing about 15 other vehicles at the trailhead.

There were hikers headed toward the trailhead as their exit point from the Bob, Koss said, but wilderness rangers were able to direct them to a different trailhead.

Access to the Bob Marshall from the north is closed; access is allowed on the western and southern trailheads, Koss said.

The fire cannibalized the Late Creek Fire.

The Flat Creek Fire and the Trail Creek Fire have joined up, and are now just called the Trail Creek Fire. It is burning at more than 8,400 acres.

An extensive area closure for the Trail Creek Fire is in place in the upper Middle Fork from the Spotted Bear River Road and the Eastside Reservoir Road around Upper and Lower Twin Creek, eastward to Dolly Varden Creek.

Closures associated with the Bear Creek Fire: Meadow Creek Rd. #2826 is closed from the Wilderness Lodge to the Meadow Creek Trailhead, the Gorge Creek Rd. #549 is closed from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Gorge Creek Trailhead, the Meadow Creek Airstrip is closed, and the Eastside South Fork Trail #80 from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Black Bear Creek.

This story will be updated with more information as it becomes available. 

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.