New Wildfire Starts North of Libby

Firefighters are battling a 30-acre fire along Highway 37 near former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine

By Justin Franz
A 30-acre fire north of Libby along Montana Highway 37. Photo Courtesy of Roby Bowe.

Updated: July 19, 7:15 p.m.

Firefighters in Lincoln County are aggressively attacking a wildfire north of Libby along Montana Highway 37, not far from the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.

The fire had burned at least 30 acres as of Thursday evening, according to the Kootenai National Forest. Sheriff Roby Bowe said no structures are threatened at this time and no evacuations orders have been issued.

Montana Highway 37 was closed north of Pipe Creek Road.

The fire is burning about 4 miles north of Libby on the outskirts of an area called Operable Unit 3, or OU3, which is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby Superfund site. OU3 includes the former W.R. Grace & Co. mine site. Bowe said the fire had not yet entered OU3 as of shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday evening. Multiple helicopters and fixed wing aircraft were being used to drop water and retardant on the blaze.

“They’re hitting it hard,” Bowe said.

Because asbestos is still found in the soil, the forest floor duff and in the bark of trees in OU3, local, state and federal authorities have long worried about what would happen if a large wildfire started near the old mine site, possibly releasing asbestos-laden ash into the air. The Kootenai National Forest maintains a specialized team of firefighters that are trained specifically to fight fire in OU3 and are outfitted with protective respiratory gear.

This story will be updated when additional information becomes available.

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