Red Flag Conditions Expected to Continue as Elmo Fire Approaches Lake Mary Ronan

Thursday marks the fourth time firefighters on the Elmo fire have encountered red flag conditions capable of producing increased fire behavior

By Mike Kordenbrock
Smoke from the Elmo Fire rolls off a hillside near Dayton the western shore of Flathead Lake on August 1, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After another difficult day Wednesday for firefighters on the human-caused Elmo fire, red flag warning conditions capable of producing increased fire behavior are forecasted to begin Thursday at noon and continue until 9 p.m.

The critical fire weather is expected to bring temperatures in the mid to high 80s, winds out of the west and southwest gusting up to 30 miles per hour, and sustained winds between 10 and 15 mph. Firefighters are expecting aggressive fire spread in exposed area of timber on moderate and steep slopes, group tree torching, and upslope crown runs with short range spotting.

Difficult fire weather, including high temperatures, gusting winds, and low relative humidity, have been a feature of the fire since it first began last Friday, July 29, at about 4:30 p.m. along Highway 28 west of the town of the Lake County town of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Thursday is now the fourth day in which red flag warnings have been issued for the Elmo fire.

“It’s challenging out there. We generally don’t see this many consecutive days in a row of what I would call firefighting that kicks our butt every day,” Incident Commander John Thompson said Wednesday night.

Bruce Giersdorf, a fire behavior analyst on the fire, said Wednesday night at about 7 p.m. that they were expecting another 24 hours of difficult weather before a possible reprieve over the weekend. Thompson said the weather will change at some point, and that when conditions become more favorable, his team will look to take advantage of the opportunities they are given.

Fire officials during a community meeting Wednesday night had predicted that the Elmo fire would continue to push northward and could reach the shore of Lake Mary Ronan by Thursday morning. By noon Thursday, the fire was about a half mile from Lake Mary Ronan and remained south of Camp Tuffit, according to Sara Rouse, a public information officer on the fire. She also said that winds were beginning to increase in strength. The north side of the fire and the Lake Mary Ronan area is a priority for firefighters Thursday.

A map of the Elmo fire shared on the fire’s InciWeb page Thursday morning.

The fire currently has 150 residences in evacuation status, and another 100 on pre-evacuation warning. Evacuation orders include all people residing north and south of County Road 352 (Lake Mary Ronan Road), and all residents who live along Lake Mary Ronan Road, and all prior evacuation orders and pre-evacuation orders related to the fire remained in effect Thursday morning. As of Wednesday, the fire was believed to be threatening 250 structures. So far eight structures have been destroyed, including at least four primary residences.

Speaking at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said Lake Mary Ronan Road (County Road 352) was closed.

“We’re not letting anyone in there because the fire danger is too severe,” he said, adding that the fire is very active in that area. “The wind’s coming up and that’s always a bad sign for fires.”

Rouse, the public information officer said they have received a lot of requests for people to be allowed onto Lake Mary Ronan Road, and that they are asking people to respect the closure and to not try and go in because it could potentially pose a safety risk to firefighters.

 “We’re trying to keep congestion down, and also if there’s members of the public back in there bringing equipment in, or trying to bring equipment out, it’s just hard for firefighters out there working to keep track of all those other folks if and when something were to arise and they needed to ensure everyone is safe.”

As the fire continues moving northward, Lake Mary Ronan Road has become a significant location for John Thompson’s Northern Rockies Team 7 Type 2 incident management team.

 “I don’t want this fire to cross this road,” Thompson said Wednesday night, as he pointed at Lake Mary Ronan Road where it runs east of the lake. “This fire crosses this road, it’s a whole different fire. And we’re going to work really, really hard to keep it on the proper side of the road.”

Speaking afterwards, Thompson elaborated on his concerns about the fire crossing County Road 352/Lake Mary Ronan Road.

“The big thing is we have some rugged terrain, it’s all forested, and you have houses interspersed in there. And you don’t have a lot of good opportunities to really stop the fire movement if it gets in there. Because it doesn’t have this open terrain like we have out here. It would just make the firefight so much more challenging. Not to mention you have two communities on the downwind side with Rollins and Lakeside.”

Firefighters had planned to work overnight trying to build lines around the Lake Mary Ronan area, and Bell, the Lake County sheriff, said late Thursday morning that firefighters had worked through the night to build a good fire line around that area, including Camp Tuffit. The hope, he said, is that scooper planes can help with holding that line, but Bell said with the weather and wind they’ve had, the fire could push over a line.

“Crews on the eastern and western sides of the fire will focus on areas of heat along the fire’s edge to ensure existing lines will hold the fire within it’s current footprint,” a Thursday morning InciWeb update on the fire states.

Conditions on the north end of the fire deteriorated Wednesday afternoon to the point where firefighting personnel on the north edge of the fire had to disengage and be pulled back by 2 p.m. and the initial planned actions in that area couldn’t be implemented as a result. Winds increased out of the southwest in the afternoon, causing the fire to burn actively in continuous timber. Upslope runs and spotting were also seen, and that fire behavior caused significant growth along the north side of the fire.

“It became unsafe. The fire behavior that was going on in there, it was just getting too hot, too smoky, and unsafe,” Operation Sections Chief Phil Knaub said Wednesday night. “We regrouped. We split our resources into what we call task force. And we started looking at what we call structure protection opportunities along the south side of Lake Mary Ronan along Lake Mary Ronan Road, as well as up to the Backwoods Way.”

Infrared mapping of the fire done before Thursday showed it had increased by 2,189 acres, for a total size of 20,616 acres. A flight over the fire late Thursday morning indicated that the fire had stayed close to where it had been mapped Thursday night. Containment on the fire also dropped from 16% down to 6%. Heading into Thursday, the drop in containment was expected by the incident management team given the fire’s increasing size. The containment reported on the fire so far has been along its southern edge near Highway 28.

The number of personnel assigned to the fire had increased Thursday to 439, and Thompson, the incident commander, said they’ve been fortunate not to have to compete for resources on the fire. “I have never seen six scooper planes in one spot in my entire career,” he said. Firefighting costs on the fire had reached $5 million by Wednesday.

Investigators with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fire Division have determined the Elmo fire to be human caused. The investigation into the fire remains ongoing.

 This story will be updated.

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