HELENA — Rain snow and cold have replaced heat and smoke after about two dry months on Montana’s fire lines, leaving crews scrambling for extra sleeping bags, heaters, coats and long underwear.
While the change in weather is welcome, it brings its own challenges for crews fighting dozens of fires in drought-stricken Montana.
“The main goal today was to go out and start pulling hose and pumps and things we absolutely didn’t need on the line because it’s going to be below freezing tonight,” said Mike Cole, a spokesman on a fire near Seeley Lake that has burned 243 square miles (631 square kilometers). The blaze led to evacuation orders, a delay to the start of the school year and choked the valley with hazardous air quality for weeks on end.
Another shot of cooler weather forecast to move in Monday could further help button things up, Cole said Friday, but fire season isn’t over.
“When it warms up here, and it usually does a couple weeks in October, people will probably still see smoke pop up in there,” Cole said.
For now, crews are taking advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidity to mop up the perimeter, which involves crews putting out every heat source within 100 feet of the fire line. Then they’ll begin rehabilitation work.
In Glacier National Park, an evacuation warning issued for the Apgar and West Glacier areas on Wednesday was followed Friday with the closure of a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road because of heavy snowfall.
Firefighters were laying up with extra clothes and had access to extra sleeping bags as overnight temperatures dropped, said fire spokeswoman Anna Callahan.
Snow did not fall on the 25 square mile (54 square kilometer) fire that destroyed Sperry Chalet on Aug. 31 and has threatened Lake McDonald Lodge, but another storm forecast for Monday should help, she said.
Across the Continental Divide, at a fire near Lincoln, snow began falling at around 3 a.m. Friday and about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of precipitation was forecast to fall on the fire, said Connie Wetzel, fire spokeswoman.
“We’ve had pretty much a 180 in fire behavior,” Wetzel said.
With the change came an about-face in firefighter gear and sleeping conditions.
There’s a supply unit with extra sleeping bags, support staff brought in heaters and they had to make a gravel road to the fire camp, because the heavy equipment was sinking into the mud, she said.
Firefighters on the large fire near Seeley Lake gathered around a propane heater in camp and donned heavy coats Friday morning. A skiff of snow fell on some of already-burned areas. One part of the fire got a quarter inch (6 millimeters) of rain.
“Everybody’s wearing long underwear up here today,” Cole said. A few days before the weather was forecast to change, some firefighters who weren’t prepared for the incoming cold had to go online and order coats.
“Those of us that have done this for a long time, we bring coats and long underwear with us,” Cole said.