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Montana Wildfire Update For September 14, 2020

The critical fire weather and poor air quality across much of Montana will last at least until the end of the week.

Almost half of the state’s air monitoring stations bounced between "Unhealthy" and "Moderate" air quality readings Monday afternoon

Libby and Thompson Falls, both directly in the path of smoke from the 1,200-acre Callahan Fire burning west of Troy are now contending with consistent "Very Unhealthy" air quality readings.

Wildfires in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho are churning out massive amounts of smoke and plenty more is headed our way.

"The smoke is going to continue," says Missoula National Weather Service Meteorologist Dave Noble.

"We’re just compounding the smoke and increasing the concentrations in the valleys. The smoke from the west just keeps coming in."

Noble hints a light at the end of the tunnel is possible by Friday or Saturday.

"There’s a system coming in that’s going to be moving pretty much over top of us bringing a chance for some rain. That could help to thin the smoke in the area."

But Noble says it’ll likely only be a one or two day reprieve. Smokey conditions are expected to return early next week.

Critical fire weather warnings were posted Monday in central, southern and southwest Montana, according to Kristin Sleeper with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

"Which means that low humidities, warm temperatures, strong gusty winds and a predicted wind shift with a cold front passing will create erratic or dangerous fire behavior that could be difficult to control."

That fire risk is compounded by the fact firefighting resources are in short supply across the nation.

"Incident management teams, fire crews, engines, aircraft; getting the necessary resources become increasingly difficult due to the high demand," Sleeper says.

Montanans are reminded that any ignition source — unattended campfires, even a single spark from dragging trailer chains — could inadvertently cause a major wildfire.

Montana air quality health effects for the evening of Sept. 14, 2020.
Credit Montana Department of Environmental Quality
Montana air quality health effects for the evening of Sept. 14, 2020.

Officials say the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman was likely caused by a lightning strike.

The U.S. Forest Service, with support from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s office announced Friday that it had completed its initial investigation into the cause of the more than 8,000 acre Bridger Foothills Fire.

"The initial finding is that it was lightning-caused, and it was from a thunderstorm that occurred in this area at the end of August," Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest said.

The fire was first reported September 4.

Daley says sometimes lightning strikes a tree, causing it to immediately flare up.

"Other times, you won’t have that flaring. It will just smolder within the tree or within the duff or any debris that might be on the forest floor, and it will just smolder there."

That is, until conditions are just right.

"We just happened to have those conditions on September 4th, where it was warm and dry and sunny."

Daley says the investigators came to their initial finding by analyzing weather data, looking for signs in the area where the fire was believed to have started, and interviewing people who had been nearby.

They’ll continue following up on any additional leads they receive before releasing a final cause.

Daley says crews are making progress on the fire, which was close to 80 percent contained as of Monday morning.

She added the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Gallatin County and National Weather Service launched an interagency post fire recovery effort to figure out where and how to stabilize soils, prevent weed infestations, plant trees and help landowners whose property has been affected.


The damage assessment from the BobCat Fire burning 7 southeast of Roundup in Musselshell County has been completed. It found more structures have been destroyed.

Fourteen primary residences  and 34 secondary or out buildings have been identified as destroyed by the 47 square mile fire that burned in tall grass, ponderosa pine and sagebrush. The fire is estimated as of Monday at 95 percent contained and firefighting command has been turned over to local fire departments.

Andrew Harper, Musselshell Disaster and Emergency Services Director, says DES and the Musselshell County Recovery Team are partnering with Team Rubicon, an international  disaster response nonprofit to provide assistance to those who lost their homes.  Monetary donations are being accepted by the Musselshell County Community Foundation.

The cause of the fire that was first detected on September 2 is still under investigation.

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