Fire Crews Wind Down Some Operations as Wildfire Growth Stalls

The region remains on high alert even as 'season-slowing' weather allows crews to pull back from some wildfires

By Micah Drew
The East Fork Fire near Olney. Courtesy image

The Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 8, which has been fighting the 7,276-acre Big Knife fire burning on the south end of the Flathead Indian Reservation since late July, will be recalled from the wildfire’s front lines this week as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Division of Fire assumes command on Wednesday morning.

The shift in management is reflective of the fire’s moderated behavior in recent days, and comes in anticipation of “season-slowing” rainstorms expected to last through Thursday, with additional storms expected over Labor Day weekend. The rain will “have a significant impact to any remaining heat and limit any fire growth and behavior,” according to fire officials.

Lightning sparked the Big Knife blaze on July 24, during a storm that ignited more than a dozen fires in northwest Montana. Within two weeks, the fire had burned nearly 5,000 acres east of Arlee, spewing a smoke column visible to Missoula residents, and prompting recreation closures as well as pre-evacuation warnings, which remain in place.

With the expected cold front and precipitation, fire behavior analysts expect limited growth to the fire’s perimeter, and crews will continue to remediate fire lines to natural states. Barring any additional flare ups, officials will no longer sent out public status updates.

The East Fork Fire south of Trego saw mixed results following a burning operation crews conducted on Monday using drone-dropped ping pong balls to ignite fuels ahead of the wildfire’s active lines. Fire officials said fuels along the south side of the fire were “not receptive” to ignition, while operations on the northern side saw more success. The firing operations allowed firefighters to establish more direct line in the rough terrain the fire is burning in, which is expected to limit further growth towards U.S. Highway 93.

Leading up to the week’s predicted rainfall, significant wind gusts and thunderstorms still posed a risk for increased fire behavior and new starts late Tuesday afternoon and overnight, but officials said the storm system will ultimately “leave good opportunities for firefighters after it passes.”

Northwest Montana remains under Stage 2 fire restrictions on all public land. Stage 2 Fire Restrictions prohibit building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire or campfire, with no exceptions allowed in northwest Montana this year.

The restrictions also prohibit 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. However, all land within a city boundary is exempted unless the local municipalities enact their own set of restrictions.

The following acts are prohibited from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.:

  1. Operating any internal combustion engine.
  2. Welding, or operating acetylene or other torch with open flame.
  3. Using an explosive.

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