Rainfall Moderates Fire Behavior, but Warm, Dry Weather to Return to Northwest Montana

Stage 2 Fire Restrictions remain in place across the region

By Mike Kordenbrock
Smoke from the East Fork Fire occludes the sun near Olney on Aug. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite the recent spate of rain and cooler weather, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is warning that fire danger remains “very high” across northwest Montana, and that temperatures are expected to return above normal by early next week.

Interagency fire managers spoke about the precipitation, fire situation and restrictions in place. “The significant widespread rainfall has temporarily reduced the severity of fire season, but fire risk is expected to increase once again and persist for several more weeks,” said Ali Ulwelling, a Forestry Assistance Specialist with the DNRC In a press release issued Wednesday afternoon.

Stage 2 Fire Restrictions will remain in effect, but Ulwelling said in the press release that interagency fire managers will make a recommendation next week on whether to keep those restrictions in place or downgrade them.

East Fork Fire

A change in weather in the area of the East Fork Fire burning about 12 miles south of Trego was expected to allow aerial resources, including helicopters and scooper planes, to join the firefighting efforts on Wednesday, according to an update from the fire’s incident management team.

The East Fork Fire received an estimated .6 inches of rain over the last two days. As of Wednesday, 530 firefighting personnel were working the fire, and it was estimated to be 5 percent contained and 4,614 acres in size. Updated acreage was not available Wednesday due to heavy smoke having prevented infrared mapping flights. The lightning-caused fire is burning in timber, in a mixed conifer forest. The fire was first reported on July 30 and estimates on Tuesday had the fire threatening 200 structures.

Firefighters planned on Wednesday to take advantage of reduced intensity in fire activity to extend existing fire line, continue extinguishing spot fires, and use drones for reconnaissance, with an emphasis on the Martin Creek area.

Heading into Thursday, firefighters are expecting increased fire activity due to a drying trend. By Friday the incident management team expects active surface fires with torching and short-range spotting of flames.

River Road East Fire

The River Road East Fire, burning about 6 miles due east of Plains in the vicinity of the Sanders County community of Paradise, was estimated to be 2 percent contained as of Wednesday. Earlier this week, firefighting personnel said that the slow containment progress was because of a focus on structure protection efforts. A total of 582 personnel have been assigned to the fire, which originated on Friday, Aug. 18.

Estimates from the Northern Rockies Coordinating Center put the total number of structures destroyed by the fire at 50. Officials have listed the cause of the fire as undetermined.

Intermittent rainfall on Tuesday “subdued fire behavior,” and firefighters have worked to build direct control lines near Henry’s Creek along the fire’s north side, according to a Wednesday update from the incident management team.

The estimated fire size has decreased slightly, from 16,790 acres to 16,772 acres, due to improved mapping. Infrared flights have not been able to fly to locate areas of heat due to cloud cover. Fire growth Tuesday is believed to have been minimal, with the most active area in Kennedy Creek, where flames were fueled by stumps and downed logs.

Firefighters have also continued to work on hazardous burned trees along access roads in the fire area, and structure protection work continued Tuesday.

Firefighters on Wednesday planned to build a fire control line on the northwest flank of the fire, in an effort to connect bluffs along River Road east to keep the fire from spreading north to an area known as Pat’s Knob where communication infrastructure is located.

Additional helicopters arrived at the fire Wednesday, and the plan going into the day was to use aircraft to drop water and reduce fire activity along the fire’s active edge to allow personnel on the ground a chance to construct direct control lines. “If soil conditions allow, crews will continue to work from roads along the east side (Camas Prairie) of the fire to cut off fire spread to the east,” Wednesday’s fire update says.

A drying trend was expected to begin Wednesday as the last rain showers subside, and the fire area is expected to see plummeting humidity levels falling below 20 percent, with winds from the west and southwest at 10 to 20 miles per hour throughout the day.

Sanders County Sheriff’s Office announced that it would be allowing residents of Paradise Gulch Lane to return home, but that they would remain on pre-evacuation status. Late Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s office announced that McLaughlin Creek residents and property owners would be allowed access, but that they should be aware of falling rock and debris on their property and on the roadway. Sheriff Shawn Fielders had indicated at a Sunday community meeting that there were structures destroyed in the McLaughlin Creek area, and that access was difficult at the time for firefighters.

“Know if you enter the area you are doing so at your own risk,” the sheriff’s office announcement says.

Affected residents in the McLaughlin Creek area were also being advised to stop at a check point with the sheriff’s office, and get a resident card to be kept on the dashboard of their vehicle. Further, the sheriff’s office asked that people limited travel on this road, and noted that firefighters continue to work in the area.

A public meeting is planned for Thursday, Aug. 24, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Plains High School gym.

Ridge, Doris Point, Tin Fires

The Ridge Fire, burning about 6 miles southeast of Hungry Horse, is estimated to be 3,651 acres in size and 76 percent contained, which is an increase in 14 percentage points from Tuesday.

The Doris Point Fire, about 8 miles south of Hungry Horse is estimated to be 1,534 acres in size and 10 percent contained. The Doris Point Fire’s containment percentage was unchanged from Tuesday.

The Tin Soldier Fires, about 17 miles east of Swan Lake, are estimated to cover an area of 7,697 acres and be 10 percent contained, which is an increase of 10 percent from Tuesday.

All three fires were caused by lightning on July 30.  Significant rainfall over these fires on Tuesday impacted operations, with most operations on the Ridge Fire being halted Tuesday due to rainfall heavily impacting roadways. Going into the day, crews on the Ridge Fire planned to continue working on constructing lines in dense forest areas, as well as on the eastern flank of the fire. Plans were also in place to secure and mop-up the north, south, and west sides of the fire.

On the Doris Fire, wind and rain Tuesday brought down trees across the roadway, leaving firefighters to spend time removing debris. Crews on Wednesday planned to continue monitoring roadways and clearing debris.

On the Tin Soldier Fires, crews constructing a fuel break on Meadow Creek Road had to stop Tuesday due to the weather. Some crews were able to use the rain to their advantage to mop up areas of the fire, but they were ultimately pushed out of position by heavy rain. Crews on Wednesday planned to maintain structure protection and continue fuels reduction.

Closures remained in effect Wednesday for the Hungry Horse Reservoir.