The Forest Service moved the fire danger in Northwest Montana from moderate to high, during the last week of July. This signaled the beginning of fire season for the year in Montana.
The Montana Rockies is a rugged, forested and scenic place. With so many trees, it isn’t surprising that the United States Forest Service keeps a close watch on fire danger, so they can fight wildfires as they occur. Fire season is a time when the forests are dry and it doesn’t take much to start a raging blaze. Some restrictions are put into place, to minimize the number of fires, but many are caused by such things as lightning strikes. The key is then to get personnel and resources to the fires as soon as possible. This isn’t always easy, because much of the terrain is exceptionally steep and rugged.
Typically, fire season begins between the first part of June and the first part of July. There was also some concern coming into this year because the snow pack wasn’t as deep as it normally is. The concern was that the forests would dry out earlier than normal, which would increase the fire hazard. That didn’t happen. The spring and early summer were unusually cool with much more rain than normal. This kept the fire danger low for a long time. Unfortunately, this is also the conditions that are optimal for grass and weeds to flourish and when they dry out, there is an increase in the amount of fuel that could burn in a wildfire.
Almost as if it was scripted, it wasn’t very long after the fire danger was raised to high that smoke began to fill valleys from wildfires. The following are the fires currently burning in Montana. There are more burning in Northern Idaho, adding to the smoke in the valleys.
Roaring Lion Fire
As of the morning of the 2nd of August, there are six fires burning in Montana. One of these is the Roaring Lion Fire in the Bitterroot National forest, not far from Missoula. This fire is at about 3,505 acres, according to the forest service’s InciWeb site. Some structures have been destroyed and 500 homes have been evacuated.
There are 150 firefighters, including 3 hot shot teams, 3 dozers, a number of fire engines and 5 helicopters working this fire and the cause is unknown at this time.
Another fire has been burning in Bitterroot national forest, also not far from Missoula and about 10 miles from the town of Hamilton. This lightning caused fire has been burning since late June and is 90 percent contained. About 1,422 acres have been burned, but it sounds like this fire is fairly well contained. Twenty fire-fighters continue mop-up duties.
The Harris Fire is another lightning caused fire burning southeast of Billings, Montana, near the Wyoming border. This fire began on July 9 and has scorched 3,394 acres, however it is now fully contained. Two engines and a bulldozer are still assigned to this fire.
Blue Lake Fire
The Blue Lake Fire was also lightning caused and it began during the last part of July. It is currently at 629 acres and is about 45 percent contained, with 188 fire-fighters working to fully contain the wildfire.
Pole and Fine Fires
These fires only cover 88 acres and although the fires are only 5 percent contained, they are being allowed to burn themselves out, with only monitoring taking place. The fires are about 30 miles northwest of the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. The cause of the fires was lightning.
Copper King Fire
This fire began on the afternoon of July 31 and is already at 700 acres in size, up from an initial size estimate of 200 acres, with zero percent containment. The fire is located 8 miles east of Thompson Falls. Currently, 33 people are fighting the fire, with the help of 2 helicopters and one airplane. More equipment and personnel have been requested, including 6 fire crews, 5 helicopters and 2 dozers.
Although this fire is growing rapidly, it is only about a mile from Highway 200 and the Clark Fork River, so there is water available for water drops. The cause is unknown at this time, but no homes have been evacuated.
Yes, fire season has begun in Montana. So far, it hasn’t been nearly as bad as what had been feared, however there is still two or three months to go before the first storms of winter drop the fire danger.
I’d like to take a moment to recognize the hard and dangerous work the fire crews do and I pray that they all return safely.