Smoke Blankets Region as Fires Continue to Burn

Sheep Fire grows near Essex, Thompson Fire tops 17,000 acres in Glacier National Park

By Justin Franz
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated Aug. 26, 8:15 p.m.

Smoke continues to blanket the northwest corner of the United States as wildfires rage from the Cascades to the Rockies.

Over 166,000 acres have burned in Montana so far this year, including roughly 70,000 in this corner of the state, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

The National Weather Service has issued an air quality alert for the entire Inland Northwest, stretching from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains as far east as Harlem and Lewistown. The agency reports that air particulate levels from local and regional wildfires range from unhealthy to very unhealthy and people who are particularly sensitive to the conditions should stay indoors or avoid prolonged exertion. Thunderstorms were possible later in the week.

The U.S. is in the middle of a severe fire season with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far. It’s only the sixth-worst going back to 1960, but it’s the most acreage burned by this date in a decade, according to the Associated Press.

The Sheep Fire continues to burn near Essex, and as of Wednesday night it had scorched more than 1,000 acres, growing from 607 acres earlier in the day. On Wednesday, firefighters were planning on starting small blazes to even the fire spread above Sheep and MacDonald Creeks. Helicopter bucket drops are being used to limit active fire spread. BNSF Railway has been moving firefighters on trains in and out of the fire area, which is located just above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

Although the fire has not moved toward the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, it still threatens the railroad, U.S. Highway 2 and the community of Essex, according to fire officials. A pre-evacuation order remains in effect and residents have been told to be ready to move at a moments notice.

Two other large fires in the Thompson-Divide Complex are still active but less of a threat to local communities on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. As of Wednesday, the Granite Fire has burned 386 acres near Marias Pass and the Thompson Fire has burned 17,090 acres north of Nyack.

The other large fire in Glacier National Park, the Reynolds Creek Fire near St. Mary, also grew this week from about 4,300 acres to 4,850 acres. Officials say the fire will continue to burn pockets of untouched pockets of vegetation inside the fire area and that as of this week it was 67 percent contained.

The Bear Creek Fire east of Swan Lake continues to be the largest blaze in the state, chewing through more than 28,000 acres. On Wednesday, fire crews were mopping up the area around the Meadow Creek Trailhead that burned late last week when the fire grew from 465 acres to more than 17,000 in just four hours. Fire crews are also working on protecting various backcountry structures in the area.

To the northeast, the Trail Creek Fire has burned more than 11,000 acres as of Wednesday morning. Like the Bear Creek Fire, the main priority of firefighters is to protect the public and area infrastructure.

The Marston Fire, part of the Northeast Kooteani Complex near Fortine, was particularly active on Tuesday and a large mushroom cloud could be seen from the blaze for miles around. As of Wednesday morning, the fire has burned 3,400 acres and is 5 percent contained.

Elsewhere on the Kootenai National Forest, firefighters are battling eight different fires near Libby that are part of the Goat Rock Complex. The largest blaze, the Klatawa Fire, had burned 585 acres as of Wednesday.

Crews planned to do burnout work Tuesday on fires near Noxon and Clark Fork in northern Idaho. They won’t have to worry as much about the fires taking off because of the smoke, but it hampers air support for firefighters.

Evacuations are in effect along both sides of Highway 46 from mile marker 14 to mile mark 2.7. Other residents are on pre-evacuation notice.

The fires are part of the Clark Fork Complex, which consists of several large blazes on the boundary between north Idaho and Northwest Montana.

This story will be updated when more information is available. 

Map does not include all fires and only shows approximate locations. 

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