Fire Season Has Arrived In Montana

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.

Observation fire

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.

Harris Fire

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.


    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @junebride, one of the fires south of Missoula did burn some houses, but there is no word on how many yet. We have fires every year, but some years are much worse than others. This hasn’t been a bad one, but 2014 and 2015 were both really bad. Last year at one point, just in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, there were 300,000 acres on fire at the same time. While that was happening, over 3 MILLION acres were burning in Alaska.

    2. Jean B Figues

      oh wow.. i guess these are the cases where in firefighters would be using helicopters bringing water and dropping it to stop the fire…

    3. Rex Trulove Post author

      The helicopters do help, at least. It still takes man power and it is hot, very dirty work, but around here, the fires wouldn’t be contained without helicopter support. The mountains are just too rugged.

  1. Ople Dulnuan

    March to May is the fire season in the Philippines but fires are not that wild as you described. I remember those days when I was one of the firefighters, the only difference here is that we use 16L backpack sprayers. When the water source is very far there’s no way but to carry the backpack sprayers up and down the hills. 🙂

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @opledulnuan, it is probably the difference in the kind of forest. Around here, our forests are mostly pine and fir, and they can be very dense, with brush and dried grass on the forest floor. The terrain is often on 400-1000 foot ridges that have pitches of about 60-70 degrees or more. It is very hard to get to and with a 30 mile an hour wind behind it, the fire can move up to 60 miles an hour, if they can’t contain it. The winds can also shift in moments and if the firefighters are in its path, they can be killed. It is unbelievable what those men and women can do. I fought forest fire one time and don’t want to do it ever again, Lord willing. Backpack sprayers wouldn’t work well, just because of the types of trees and the speed the fire usually moves with the very steep terrain.

      Also, at times one of those 150 foot tall trees gets so hot so fast that it explodes. That sends burning cinders hundreds of yards in every direction, each of which starting new fires.

    2. Ople Dulnuan

      @rextrulove Yeah. Mostly here are just dried grasses of up to 4 meters with less trees. And we just have to stop it before it reach any plantation

    3. Rex Trulove Post author

      @opledulnuan, yes, that would be quite a bit different than working with trees that are 50 meters tall and three or four meters thick. 😀 If the fire that is going was in grass, it would be out by now, which would be a good thing. As it is, after containment, it isn’t unusual here for a fire to continue smoldering for many months, until the area is covered with snow.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @brendamarie, yes, they usually give them names, because there can be several fires in the same national forest and it helps people know which one people are referring to. Right now, there are two burning in the Bitterroot National Forest, so I can guarantee that if I called my local forest service contact to get the latest update on one of those fires, that the first thing he’d say would be “which one?”. 🙂 The names usually aren’t fancy, though. They normally (though not always) relate to the location of the fire. For instance, the Copper King Fire, which is burning about 12 miles from here, is named after the old Copper King mine that hasn’t been in operation since the late 1800’s.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      Thank you, @andriaperry. Though the Copper King fire is fairly close, it isn’t likely that it would reach here. Before that happened, they would call in a huge amount of people and equipment. The fire would also have to burn around a bend in the river or cross the river twice before it would get here. What worries me more, though, is that the fire is only about 3 miles from where we went camping in mid July. That is a beautiful area, filled with wildlife, and I’d hate to see it all burn up.

  2. Sandy KS

    I never knew they name the fires either. It must be scary dealing with them all the time. I use to see fires spring up while living in Florida. but never to the magnitude you mention.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @rusty2rusty, I’m used to it. I’ve been living in places that were surrounded by pine and fir forests most of my life. I have some spectacular pictures taken from my back porch of the Pine Ridge fire two years ago. It got to within 5 miles of town and was plainly visible, but then the winds shifted 180 degrees and blew the fire back in on itself. There was nothing left there to burn, so it died down and gave fire crews the chance to put fire lines around it. The picture of the helicopter and bucket at the top of the article was taken during that fire from a place that isn’t far from one of our fishing holes. It was amazing to see them working that fire, too. They had three helicopters and at any given time, one would be scooping up water from the river, one would be either flying to or coming back from the fire, and one would be making a water drop. Those guys really know what they are doing.

      In fact, my brother retired less than 10 years ago as the western regional infrared satellite mapping technician…the guy who reads the thermal infrared images and tells them exactly where the water needs to be dropped. He was one of only four people in the US who knew how to read the thermal images. (He is now living with his new wife in Croatia…I think.)

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      @patzanthony, we do too. There isn’t a lot that can be done because there are many fires every year. A few can be prevented, but most of those in the western US are lightning caused and there isn’t anything we can do to prevent them.

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