Fire Managers Impose Severe Restrictions Across Northwest Montana

Set to take effect Monday, Stage II restrictions prohibit nearly all fires in order to prevent ignition points and stave off wildfires; meanwhile, crews attack a new fire start in Polebridge

By Tristan Scott
A wildfire burns along the North Fork of the Flathead River on June 27, 2015. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

As fire danger in Northwest Montana ticks up to its highest level of extreme, interagency fire officials announced the entire region would enter Stage II fire restrictions on Monday, July 26, at 12:01 a.m., meaning no open fires of any kind anywhere, whether you’re on public land or in your own backyard.

The new rules will apply broadly across the Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) sites, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) Kalispell, Stillwater, and Swan units, and Flathead County.

In general, you can’t smoke outside your home or car under Stage II rules, and motorized vehicles are prohibited off designated roads and trails.

Interagency fire officials say the threat of wildfire is extreme, and the Stage II rules are intended to stave off ignition points during a period of peak vulnerability, which includes a Red Flag Warning for Glacier National Park and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The combination of gusty winds and low humidity may produce critical fire weather conditions, officials warn.

“The intent of fire restrictions is to reduce fire risk and prevent wildfires during periods of high to extreme danger by decreasing potential sources of ignition,” according to a statement from the Northern Rockies Coordination Group. “Each year, 70-80% of wildfires are human-caused and this summer the trend has continued. Northwest Montana is currently experiencing drought conditions including extremely dry forest fuels and weather forecasts of high temperatures accompanied by wind, low humidity, and minimal precipitation. Fires continue to burn across Montana and the West where firefighting resources are in high demand.” 

As if to underscore the extreme fire danger, the interagency team’s announcement on Thursday coincided with a new 50-acre wildfire start five miles west of Polebridge, up Hay Creek, where initial attack resources include two Type 6 engines with a total of 10 firefighters and three helicopters performing water drops. The fire, first reported Wednesday, was transitioning to a Type 3 Incident Management Team late Thursday morning.

Another fire start was reported Wednesday in the Riverside drainage between U.S. Highway 2 and Hungry Horse Reservoir. Its status was not immediately available.

In Lincoln County, Stage II restrictions have been in place since last Friday.

Federal and state jurisdictions coming under Stage II restrictions on Monday are: Flathead National Forest lands outside the Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wilderness areas, in Flathead, Lake, Missoula, Lewis and Clark, and Powell counties; Kootenai National Forest lands in Flathead, Lincoln, and Sanders counties, as well as in Bonner and Boundary Counties in Idaho; Glacier National Park; Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) units in Kalispell, Libby, Stillwater, and the Swan Valley. State land and private classified forested land within Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln Counties are also subject to the restrictions; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Region 1 within Flathead, Lake, Sanders, and Lincoln Counties.

Private entities under Stage II restrictions include the region’s major timber companies and a private landowner: Flathead Ridge Ranch, which owns 126,000 acres west of Kalispell, is not allowing any fires on its lands; Stimson Private Timber Company is not allowing any fires on its lands. No camping is allowed unless in a specifically designated area along the Fisher River. Motorized use is not allowed behind closed gates; F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company is not allowing fires, camping, smoking, fireworks, shooting, use of internal combustion engines, or motorized vehicles on or off road (Unless on an open, public road). These restrictions are in effect immediately. Non-motorized use is currently allowed until further notice; Green Diamond Resource Company lands in Lincoln, Sanders, and Flathead Counties are also under restrictions; SPP Montana timberlands in Lincoln, Sanders, and Flathead Counties are under restrictions.

“Please keep wildfire prevention in mind when visiting your public lands,” according to a statement from the Northern Rockies Coordination Group. “Never park in tall, dry grass. The heat from your undercarriage and exhaust pipe can cause accidental ignition. When travelling to and from your public lands with any type of trailer ensure your chains are properly connected. Dragging chains can easily spark a wildfire.”

Stage II Fire Restrictions Prohibit: Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire, campfire, or wood stove fire; smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials; operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails.