Joined: 14 Sep 2015
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I hate to keep posting about all the fires, so I think I will make this one the last unless something really bad crops up.
A cold front knocking temperatures 20 degrees below normal pushed into western Montana on Tuesday, giving relief to firefighters across the northern Rocky Mountains.
At least a half-inch of rain was expected along much of the Continental Divide, with more cool weather extending through Wednesday or Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
That could be followed by two more cold fronts arriving over the weekend and early next week before a drying trend reestablishes itself in northwest Montana.
However, that low-pressure system pulled smoke from massive California and Idaho fires straight toward Missoula, resulting in a distinct campfire tang to the Five Valleys’ airshed around noon Tuesday.
Hopefully, this odorous smoke episode will be short-lived with less smelly, smoke-filled air this evening,” Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Ben Schmidt said on Tuesday. “While more smoke is likely for several more weeks, it would be nice to get a smoke break for tonight and the next few days.”
Unfortunately for the Seeley Lake community, that wind shift kicked the Crooks fire into action on Tuesday. It grew from 2,600 acres to 3,258 in a day of heavy burning in the remote mountains south of the Jocko River 10 miles east of Arlee. Air quality plunged toward the unhealthy category Tuesday afternoon.
West Lolo Complex
The arrival of cool rainy weather on Tuesday knocked the Thompson Falls air quality level back to good after days in the unhealthy zone. Forecasts called for possible thunderstorms but up to an inch of rain in the area, which should have a calming effect on the complex’s fires.
The Thorne Creek fire at the heart of the complex grew another 4,000 acres on Monday as Red Flag weather kept the winds active. It now covers about 36,000 acres in the mountains five miles northeast of Thompson Falls. It’s currently the top-priority fire in the state, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Most of the expansion occurred in the Goat Creek, Graves Creek and Four Lakes drainages. Some edges of the fire may hit the scars from the Copper King and Spruce 2 fires of past years, allowing firefighters a measure of security in those areas. A hotshot crew did night work in that vicinity, while daytime activity involved burnout fires to reinforce the secure areas along the Thompson River Road corridor. A single-engine air tanker plane dropped a retardant load on the Priscilla Peak lookout station to protect the structure and radio tower there.
A squadron of five helicopters has been dropping water for structure protection along the Thompson River Road, backed up by volunteer fire department and Forest Service ground crews and engines.
A public meeting to update West Lolo fire activity has been rescheduled from Tuesday to Wednesday evening, and now takes place at 5:30 p.m. in Ainsworth Park in Thompson Falls. The meeting will also be posted on YouTube and Facebook.
The Lolo National Forest has closed the Deer Horne and Beatrice road systems along with the West Fork of Fish Trap Road — including its campground — due to increased fire activity.
Burnt Peak/South Yaak
The 4,066-acre Burnt Peak fire nine miles southwest of Troy pushed crews over their primary containment line on Monday, forcing a retreat toward the West Fork of Keeler Creek near Lafoe Mountain. New lines are being scouted along the Callahan Creek Road and 404 Road, as well as other roads and ridgetops.
The South Yaak fire remained active on its eastern front between Arbo Creek and North Fork O’Brien Creek along Feeder Mountain, but relatively contained along Eastside Road. It has burned 11,585 acres in steep terrain just east of Yaak and two miles north of Troy. Residents of Eastside, Kilbrennan Lake, Seventeen Mile and Sylvanite roads are under pre-evacuation notice and those roads are closed to the public. Much of the Three Rivers Ranger District is also closed to public activity due to fire danger.
The fire nine miles east of Polson above Flathead Lake was mostly smoldering and creeping on Monday, and covers about 2,230 acres. Firefighters reported much of the heavy fuel in the area was wetter than usual, giving them an advantage in containing the fire’s spread. Management of the fire returned to local firefighting agencies on Sunday.
Much of this 2,900-acre fire four miles west of Polebridge has moved into mop-up stage as firefighters patrolled for hot spots inside its perimeter. The water-dropping helicopter assigned to it has also been sharing time at a new Big Hawk fire in the Jewel Basin east of Bigfork over the weekend, as well as the Boulder 2700 fire. The area is expected to get up to an inch of rain out of this week’s cold front.
Granite Pass Complex
The four fires burning near Lolo Pass showed little activity in the past several days as crews focused on mop-up action. The BM Hill fire remains the largest at 5,005 acres a half-mile north of the Lolo Pass Visitor Center along Highway 12. Firefighters have been removing structure protection and picking up hoses as the rehabilitation phase of the fire gets underway.
The 165-acre Lolo Creek fire in the same vicinity is in patrol status. Across the Idaho border, the Shotgun fire two miles south of the visitor center has burned 528 acres while the Boulder Creek fire has covered 211 acres. Both are burning in steep, difficult terrain and have shown minimal growth as they’ve run into the 2015 Boulder fire scar.
Authorities ordered evacuations on Tuesday for several remote communities in north-central Montana as strong winds propelled a large wildfire toward inhabited areas.
The mandatory evacuation covered Lodge Pole, a town of about 300 people on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and the former mining town of Zortman, which has about two dozen people, KOJM reported.
Law enforcement officers planned to go door to door asking residents to leave, the Phillips County Sheriff's office said on social media. Evacuees were told to go to the old National Guard Armory in Malta, about 45 miles away.
The evacuations came after the Pine Grove Fire northeast of Hays burned almost 8 square miles of timber and short grass since it was first reported Monday.
An evacuation order for the town of Fort Belknap was lifted after a fire that threatened it on Monday was brought under control by firefighters.
The Bureau of Land Management’s Malta Field Office has temporarily closed the Camp Creek Campground, located about 1 mile north of Zortman, and the Montana Gulch Campground, located about 1/2 mile west of Landusky, due to fire activity.
Montana has spent about $39.2 million of its 2021 fire suppression fund of $105 million since the start of the fiscal year.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.