Montana Wildfire Roundup For September 11, 2017

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 5:46 pm

Updated 6:15 p.m.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved disaster assistance for two more wildfires in northwestern Montana.

FEMA funding is now available to pay 75 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs for the Moose Peak and Highway 200 Complex fires in Lincoln and Sanders Counties. Those fires are threatening 925 homes and businesses in and around Plains, and 45 homes and businesses southeast of Libby. The state's applications, filed yesterday, said the fires are also threatening power and telephone transmission lines, cellphone towers, a gas pipeline, highway bridges and watersheds.

The two fires started during a lightning storm on August 30th and have combined to burn 45 square miles.

FEMA has previously approved grants for the Lodgepole, Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge and Alice Creek Fires.

Rice Ridge Fire

Missoula County officials downgraded most evacuation orders to evacuation warnings in the Seeley Lake area Sunday.

Residents of just six homes still remain under an evacuation warning due to a lightning-caused fire that started on July 24 and has since burned 207 square miles. The Rice Ridge Fire led to the temporary evacuation of more than a thousand residences, caused hazardous air quality for weeks and delayed the start of school.

Air quality in Seeley Lake was moderate for most of yesterday. It has been “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” for most of today so far.

Seeley-Swan High School students began their school year last week at an upscale resort 20 miles from town. Elementary students started classes today.

Mike Cole, a public information officer on the Rice Ridge Fire, says favorable weather allowed firefighters to continue a burnout operation this afternoon on the southwest flank of the fire near Ovando.

"And what we are trying to do is bring the open fire edge down off the mountain, down into a road system where we can actually get at it, and a place where it’s safe to put our firefighters."

There will be a public meeting on the Rice Ridge fire tonight at 6 at the Mission Bible Fellowship Church in Seeley Lake.

West Fork Fire

Fire crews fighting the West Fork Fire north of Libby say yesterday and today were some of the highest fire intensity days they’ve seen recently.

On top of that, cloud cover has impacted air support today, says Cindy Sowders, a public information officer on the West Fork Fire.

"We’ve had a little bit of a challenge, we haven’t been able to get up our aerial resources. We had a lot of aerial support yesterday and it’s just been low visibility so that's been a challenge for today."

Sunday, an air tanker was able to drop retardant just north of Mount Tom, which slowed fire growth and gave crews on the ground time to bolster containment lines. Four helicopters also dropped water. Today the focus was on the ground, using dozers to create fire lines on the north and east side of the fire.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office downgraded some evacuation orders to evacuation warnings yesterday afternoon in the area of the West Fork Fire. Evacuation warnings for the nearby Moose Peak Fire remain in place for East Fisher Road and Bayhorse Ranch.

Alice Creek Fire

Aerial efforts to quell the Alice Creek Fire near Augusta were also hampered today by gusty winds.

Record low fuel moistures and low relatively combined today for what fire officials are calling a “heads-up day.”

Corinne Wetzel, a public information officer on the Alice Creek Fire, says crews are using bucket drops when they can to inject moisture into the area. She says it creates a humid microclimate.

"Crews can work in there to use the strategy that's called mixing, and it helps mix the water into the dirt and into the fuels because they can hold heat underneath the ground in the dirt, in rocks, in tree roots and all that to burn underneath the ground for long periods of time."

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for residents along both sides of Highway 200 between mile markers  92 and highway 434. The Elk Meadows/Evergreen subdivisions are also under mandatory evacuation orders.

Red flag alerts are in effect through midnight for much of north and central Montana. A Red Flag Warning means that a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures are anticipated that could contribute to extreme fire behavior. The strongest winds will mainly be north of the Highway 2 corridor.

Air quality alerts continue for Flathead, Granite, Lake, Lincoln, Missoula, Powell, and Ravalli counties because of smoke from wildfires.

The National Weather Service is also issuing a Red Flag Warning for Tuesday from noon to midnight for strong, gusty winds and low humidity

Updated 10:10 a.m.

Yesterday was partly cloudy and became breezy in the afternoon especially on the ridgetops and drainages that aligned east-west. Crews were successfully at burning out unburned fuels to create a black line, hold the fire lines and suppress any spot fires. Torching and spotting continue as the primary mechanism of fire spread.

Outlook: The ridge of high pressures will continue to build across the region for a gradual warming and drying trend. Winds will continue from the west-southwest through Wednesday. The fire area will experience warmer temperatures and gusty afternoon winds. Smoke will be visible on all fires. Fire growth will continue. Resources remain limited, including ground crews and aircraft. These resources will be utilized to maximize their effectiveness during the expected winds.

Updated 9:58 am

Red Flag conditions will prevail over the Alice Creek Fire throughout the day. High winds will be out of the west/southwest between 15-20 mph gusting up to 30-40 mph during the afternoon. This, combined with low relative humidity and record low fuel moistures have the potential to create very active fire behavior and rapid fire spread.

Despite the windy conditions, last night firefighters saw relatively calm fire behavior. Their efforts were focused in areas that are holding heat and posing the most threat to fire lines and infrastructure. Silver King Lake and the continental divide near Elk Meadows were the main areas of concern.

Today, these same areas are expected to be active when weather conditions, terrain, and fuel are aligned to create active fire behavior. Aircraft may be an unreliable resource today as the wind can make it dangerous to fly.

With many critical fire behavior elements lining up, the potential for dangerous fire behavior exists. Firefighters remain vigilant for what is known as a "heads-up day." Firefighters on the ground will remain in the fire area as long as it is safe to do so. If fire conditions become too risky, personnel will be pulled off the line to reevaluate the situation. Firefighter and public safety remains of upmost concern.

Along highway 200 in the fire area, and along Highway 435 at the Hoon Incident Command Post, Montana Department of Transportation has issued a temporary 35 mph speed limit to ensure the safety of fire crews and motorists in the area. Drive cautiously in these areas as slow moving equipment and firefighters may be on the road at any time. Please check the DOT website for the most updated travel information as road closure may become necessary. "Know before you go."

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for residents between mile marker 92 and highway 434 - along highway 200 on both sides of the road. Elk Meadows/Evergreen subdivisions are under mandatory evacuation notices. Landers Fork, Elk Trail Park and the Alice Creek communities are under a "pre-evacuation" notice.

Updated 9:51 am

The Park Creek Fire is established in the headwaters of Dry Creek and continues to back down the west aspect of Arrastra Mountain. Fire crested the unnamed peak to the south of Arrastra Mountain and slopped over to the south aspect above Huckleberry Saddle. Small-scale burnout operations were conducted to secure parts of Beaver Creek Road. Air operations will continue with water bucket drops on the active fire areas to the west of Arrastra Creek, focused on keeping the fire from crossing Beaver Creek Rd (4106). The air assets at the Lincoln airport are supporting Rice Ridge, Alice Creek, and Park Creek fires. From Huckleberry Saddle down Dry Creek Road, contingency line is being constructed with heavy equipment to create a fuel break aimed at keeping the fire north of Dry Creek Road. This will tie in with line from the north end of Kleinschmidt Flat. Fire activity is moderate and terrain driven with uphill runs, backing, creeping and occasional single tree torching. Steep, rugged terrain, large dead and down fuels and numerous snags continue to be the primary safety concerns for fire crews.

Updated 9:45 am

There is a red flag warning from noon today to midnight for the Caribou, Gibralter Ridge and Weasel Fires area. Hotter and dryer with southwest winds with the potential for gusts up to 20-30 mph on the ridgetops.

Caribou Fire: Yesterday firefighters focused on the south and southwest side, continuing fireline construction and engaging direct attack when possible near Lime Creek. Heavy equipment and crews continued building fireline along the north side of Marias Mountain into the South Fork of Young Creek and Blacktail Creek area.

Today, Firefighters and equipment operators will continue building fireline along the north side of Marias Mountain and from Young Creek west towards Lime Creek. On the west side of the fire, heavy equipment is working on indirect line using existing roads in the Blacktail Creek area to the Canadian border.

Caribou Evacuations: All areas in West Kootenai remain in Pre-Evacuation Warning. This includes West Kootenai North and South of Tooley Lake, Spring Creek, Dodge Creek, and Basin Creek.

Gibralter Ridge Fire: The fire progressed south along Williams Creek toward Locke Mountain. Fire managers will evaluate fire activity in the area and use helicopters or aircraft to check fire growth. Crews continue prepping Grave Creek Road and will remain in the area to patrol and mop up hot spots.

Gibralter Ridge Evacuations: A Pre-Evacuation Warning remains in effect for the Sherman Creek, Griffith Creek, Therriault Pass Road, Stevens Creek, Glen Lake and Sinclair Creek (south/east of West Road) areas.

Weasel Fire: Fire managers were able to view the fire yesterday and will continue evaluating staffing needs. The fire is burning northeast through thick Subalpine fir toward Tuchuck Mountain. No private property or structures are threatened; Forest Service Weasel Cabin and dock had been wrapped ahead of yesterday's fire spread.

Updated 9:40 am

On the Lolo Peak Fire, warmer, drier weather is predicted. The inversion has lifted and humidity is low, therefore active fire behavior is expected. Increased moisture is forecasted later in the week.

Yesterday, fire was active on the west side. Crews continued to hold the fire line and monitor for spot fires. Helicopters assisted firefighters by dropping water on the western perimeter. Suppression repair continued in the Highway 12 corridor. The fire in the mouth of Sweeney Creek burned to widen the buffer between the fire and the valley floor.

Today, f ire activity will be monitored in the South Fork of Lolo Creek as it works its way up toward the saddle into Bass Creek. As the fire backs down into the Brushy Creek drainage it should slow as it reaches areas with more moisture in the fuels. The fire remains active in Sweeney Creek and crews will continue to use burn operations if necessary to reinforce the buffer area between the fire and the Highway 93 corridor. Mop-up will continue along the Elk Meadows road on the west side of the fire. Monitor, patrol and mop-up of recent burnout operations will continue on the east side of the fire. Suppression repair work will continue in the Highway 12 corridor.

Updated 9:35am

There are public meeings for the Rice Ridge Fire in Seeley Lake at 6 pm tonight at the Mission Bible Fellowship Church and in Ovando tomorrow at 6 pm at Ovando Elementary School's Gym.

Rice Ridge: Firefighters made good progress on the western fire lines yesterday as clear skies allowed air support throughout the day for the first time in a week. Indirect fire line construction continued along Forest Road 4363, with dozer line being built from road 4363 towards the 2015 Richmond Peak fire scar. Mop up continued from Findell and Murphy Creek south to the Kozy Korner area. Firefighters are putting out all sources of heat, with a goal of eliminating any heat within 100 feet of the fire line.

A large aerial burnout operation was started yesterday afternoon on the south side of the fire, north of Forest Road 477 and west of Monture Cabin. This firing operation started about 2.5 miles north of the 477 road on ridge tops in the area between Little Stanley Creek/ Black Canyon Creek on the west and Cave Creek/Dunham Creek on the east. The purpose of the operation is to bring the main fire to the fire line and will take about 3 days to complete.

Heavy equipment continued to remove logs and slash from the shaded fuel break on Forest Road 477 west of Monture Cabin and mop up continued in the cabin area.

Seeley Lake was closed to water craft use so fixed-wing "scooper" planes could "scoop" water from Seeley Lake to drop on the east side of the fire in McDermott Creek to keep the fire from moving south towards homes around Coopers Lake. Structure protection continued around the homes at Coopers Lake. Structure assessment and protection was completed on an additional 20 homes around Placid Lake east of the Liberty fire. Night operations, patrol and mop up, continued.

Today : Fire activity will be mostly terrain and fuel driven today, with winds out of the west/southwest, gusting 12-15 mph on ridge tops. The northwest corner of the fire remains the highest priority area due to its location close to the town of Seeley Lake. At Placid Lake, firefighters should complete structure assessment and protection today on the remaining 40 homes that could be threatened by any eastward movement of the Liberty fire.

Zone 5, which includes approximately 6 homes, is the only zone still under Evacuation Order in Missoula County. All Evacuation Warnings in Missoula County remain in effect.

Evacuations and evacuation warnings remain in effect in Powell County.

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