Firefighters Aggressively Attack Wildfire Near Libby Vermiculite Mine

Air and ground crews work hard to keep Highway 37 Fire out of contaminated mine site

By Justin Franz
The Highway 37 Fire near Libby on Thursday. Photo Courtesy of Dustin Leftridge.

The Latest

-Highway 37 Fire has burned 40 to 60 acres and is zero percent contained

-Fire burning about a mile away from former vermiculite mine

-Health officials monitoring situation, ready to deploy air quality monitors if needed

Updated: July 20, 12:15 p.m.

Firefighters in Lincoln County are trying to get a handle on a wildfire burning near the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine north of Libby.

As of Friday morning, the Highway 37 Fire had burned 40 to 60 acres about four miles north of Libby. Kootenai National Forest Fire Management Officer Dan Rose said the fire was likely human caused.

Local, state and federal officials have long worried about a wildfire near the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine, ground zero for the Libby asbestos contamination, because of contaminated dirt and soil in the area. Officials have feared that a large wildfire near the old mine could release asbestos-laden ash into the air.

The fire is burning about a mile from an area called Operable Unit 3, or OU3, which is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby Superfund site. OU3 is a 10,000-acre site that includes the former mine. OU3 used to encompass about 35,000 acres directly north of Highway 37, but its parameters were shrunk in 2017 after the EPA conducted tests that found the soil was not as contaminated in the other acres.

Despite the change in parameters, the U.S. Forest Service still designates the area directly north of Highway 37 as a “modified response zone.” Firefighters who work there are required to receive special training and are outfitted with protective respiratory gear. Rose said the fire is currently burning in that zone and specially trained firefighters have been deployed to the area.

If the fire does enter OU3, the Lincoln County Health Department will deploy mobile air-quality monitoring stations. Health officials will use information from those monitoring stations to determine if a shelter-in-place order needs to be issued to local residents.

Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program Manager Noah Pyle said firefighters have worked hard to contain the fire and are optimistic they will not have to deploy air-quality monitoring systems.

“We do not anticipate the fire will go into OU3 at this time,” Pyle said Friday.

Rose said the fire was first discovered shortly after 3:30 p.m. Thursday, and within 30 minutes it had grown from a half acre to 30 acres, fueled by hot and dry conditions. Because of the proximity to the former mine site, Rose said local and federal firefighters aggressively attacked the blaze from the ground and air using eight helicopters and nine fixed-wing aircraft. In four hours, the helicopters dropped more than 220,000 gallons of water on the fire from the nearby Kootenai River.

“It was an incredible response,” Rose said.

Today, firefighters are focusing on digging fire line on the northeast side of the fire and installing water hoses on the east side. Rose said officials want to try to contain the fire before a cold front brings fast-moving winds to the area tonight and tomorrow.

In order to give space to firefighting operations, Highway 37 near Pipe Creek Road is down to one lane of traffic, and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office was telling drivers to be ready for delays.

The Highway 37 Fire is the second notable blaze to start on the Kootenai National Forest this week. On July 15, the lightning-caused Zulu Fire was discovered about 23 miles north of Libby in the Zulu Drainage. As of late this week, it had burned approximately 20 acres.

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