As nation’s attention turns to fires on west coast, Montana remains a tinder box

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As nation's attention turns to fires on west coast, Montana remains a tinder box
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As national attention focused on the devastating wildfires raging across the Pacific Coast states, firefighters in Montana got a timely break from the extreme fire conditions of a week ago. While multiple fires continue to burn across the state, […]


Retardant drop on the Montana State University

As national attention focused on the devastating wildfires raging across the Pacific Coast states, firefighters in Montana got a timely break from the extreme fire conditions of a week ago. While multiple fires continue to burn across the state, the greater impact to Montanans over the past week has been from smoke drifting in from the west.

At his weekly COVID-19 update, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock noted the negative impact that the drifting smoke is having on the health of Montanans.

“Smoke is drifting into communities and rapidly degrading air quality,” Bullock said, adding an air quality alert has been in effect in many counties since early Sunday and will likely stay that way the next few days. He said air quality across the state would likely continue to be rated as unhealthy or moderate as the week progresses.

In reviewing Montana's fire season thus far, Bullock noted that 1,876 fires have burned more than 260,000 acres in Montana, with fire suppression costs for the state accruing to about $10 million - a far cry from the 2.6 million acres that have burned over the last five months in California.

He added that the losses to fire in Montana this year are still significant for communities that have been impacted and homes lost, but reflected back he to the 2017 fire season when state costs were $70 million.

“To date we are still in a pretty darn good place,” Bullock said.

Bullock said the state is maintaining readiness, but has sent engines and personnel to help with devastating wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

“We want to continue to be able to help our neighbors in need and in order to do so we need Montanans to be vigilant and safe,” he said.

Bullock said this year more than 75% of the wildfires in Montana have been human caused, and that people should be especially careful when in the outdoors.

A low-pressure weather system is expected to come from the west on Friday or Saturday, and may direct more smoke into Montana. It could also bring rain, which could improve air quality, but the smoke might not completely move out.

Bullock urged people having problems to seek medical treatment immediately. He said people could check on air quality at the state’s website www.todaysair.mt.gov.

Bridger Foothills Fire

Emergency operations at the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman are transitioning from attacking the fire to recovery as hundreds of people return to see what, if anything, remains of their homes.

The fire; which the U.S. Forest Service has now designated as originating from a natural cause, was first reported on September 4th just above a popular hiking trail leading to the Montana State University "M" on the southern face of Mount Baldy.

By Friday night the Bridger Foothills Fire had grown to about 400-acres, but then exploded in both size and ferocity as a strong winds moved into the area, pushing the flames into Bridger Canyon and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

A total of 68 structures were destroyed including 28 homes, as well as many miles of fence lines and hundreds of tons of hay. The worst of the fire was brought under control over Labor Day weekend when a Pacific cold front moved across the area bringing cool temperatures and roughly half an inch of rain.

According to the U.S. Forest Service InciWeb, the Bridger Foothills fire is now 77% contained after burning 8,224-acres, the large majority of which is private land. The Bridger Canyon Road is now entirely open to the public; however travelers are cautioned to drive slowly and watch for fire traffic, as firefighting resources remain in the area.

Over the next several days fire crews will continue to locate, isolate, and put out hot-spots interior to the fire's edge on all flanks. Personnel will be utilizing an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS/drone) to locate hot-spots along the fire perimeter on the northern flank. and crews will continue to mop-up hot spots and grid the mostly unburned areas where previous spotting occurred.

Temperatures are forecast to be in the low to mid 70s over the next several days with slightly higher relative humidity (18-22%) and winds similar to previous days. Large fuels will continue to smolder, and creeping fire behavior is expected in duff and lighter fuels.

Drift smoke from other fires in the West is expected to remain in the greater Bozeman area. Expected fire behavior is low but potential for fire in the area is high, due to extremely dry fuels. The extended forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain over the upcoming weekend, with measurable precipitation expected (0.3 inch).

State Creek Fire

One fire that has not received a lot of attention is the 3.140-acre State Creek Fire burning 16 miles northeast of Butte, just beyond Whitetail Reservoir in the Deerlodge National Forest.

The fire was caused by lightning on Aug. 25 but went undetected until Saturday, Aug. 29. It's burning in an area difficult for firefighters to access due to rough terrain, numerous snags, and a significant amount of dead and down trees.

More than 160 firefighters are currently battling the blaze, which is now 50% contained, but not before destroying two structures and threatening 22 more.

Some of the strategic objectives for this fire include protecting private residences and structures, protecting heritage sites, keeping the fire off private land when possible, and minimizing negative impacts to fish populations and the spread of noxious and invasive weeds. Fire crews are working to complete an indirect fire line to protect the St. Anthony Mine site.

On Tuesday, aviation resources were used to slow the fire's spread to the north. Crews continued to re-enforce prepared lines and keep the fire within the indirect lines. The State Creek Fire is currently smoldering with backing and creeping. An increase in fire activity may occur due to the continued warming drying trend and predicted winds.

The Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have issued closure orders for the area around the State Creek Fire including roads and trails. A Temporary Flight Restriction is in effect for the area.

This fire will continue to put up visible smoke as interior pockets of unburned fuels continue to burn. The fire may become more active, due to weather, until there is a season ending event of moisture.

Drumming Fire

The Drumming Fire, which began in the Flathead National Forest on Aug. 26, crawled its way slowly through the Bob Marshall Wilderness for more than a week before jumping the Continental Divide into the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest on Sept 5.

Since then its more than tripled in size, blackening approximately 3,686-acres of timber 23 miles southeast of Essex. While the Drumming Fire remains 0% contained, scars from past fires have eliminated much of the fuel load in the fire's path.

Callahan Fire

Burning in the Idaho panhandle just a few miles west of the Montana border, the Callahan Fire threatens to spread into the Kootenai National Forest threatening the small community of Troy, Montana.

The Callahan Fire was first detected on September 8, burning in timbered, steep terrain south of Smith Mountain. With the steep terrain, snags and rolling material the fire has a moderate to high potential for spread.

One-hundred-twenty fire fighters are currently on the fire lines in northern Idaho, including detachments from Montana. While the Callahan Fire has seen limited expansion in recent days, remaining at roughly 1,200-acres since Sept. 13, thermal belts are allowing the fire to continue to burn.

Smoke in the area drifting in from fires further west continue to suppress afternoon temperatures by 10 to 15 degrees, helping to minimize the fire's behavior; however, dry conditions with no chance for precipitation is forecast in the area for the week ahead.

David Murray is Natural Resources/Agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email dmurray[email protected] or call (406) 403-3257. To preserve quality, in-depth journalism in northcentral Montana subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.