Montana Wildfire Roundup For August 11, 2017

Aug 11, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 5:52 pm

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office has expanded the evacuation warning area associated with Lolo Peak Fire.  The alert reads as follows:

Due to this weekend’s impending Red Flag weather event, the evacuation warning area for Highway 12 near Lolo has been expanded now to include both the north and south sides of the highway from mile post 20 at Bear Creek to Fort Fizzle.

A lightning storm that blew through northwest Montana last night has firefighters scrambling from Eureka to Glacier National park.

Fire officials say the storm triggered approximately 150 lightning strikes and at least eight small fires or suspected fires inside Glacier National Park alone. One of the largest, the Sprague Fire, is currently estimated at 10 acres, and caused an evacuation of Sperry Chalet.

Kelly Stevens, a park spokeswoman, says helicopters and crews rappelling from helicopters, are working on suppressing that fire.

"A Type 1 and Type 2 helicopter are being used to drop water on this priority fire.”

All but three of 42 people who were at Sperry chalet have decided to hike out along a long and difficult alternative route after a wildfire cut them off from the main trail. There is no motorized road access to the chalet.

The dozens of people hiking out of the chalet must now take a rugged trail more than 13 miles long that crosses two mountain passes and can take 8 to 10 hours to walk.

Park rangers also planned to lead out 39 other hikers who were staying in backcountry campsites near fires that broke out after the passing lightning storm.

Despite the sudden outbreak of fires and backcountry evacuations, most areas of the park remain open.

"When I was out just about an hour ago, it was busy and business as usual," Stevens says. "Apgar was thriving, people were on the lake kayaking and swimming. So yeah, it’s busy and visitors seem to be having a good time."

More than 1 million people visited the park in July, the highest number of people that have been in Glacier over the course of a single month.

The lightning storm also caused spot fires to break out between the town of Eureka and the Gibralter Ridge fire. Firefighters attacked those throughout the night. The Gibralter Ridge fire is now estimated at nearly 1,700 acres. Fire managers say they expect it to continue growing given the current weather conditions. They say it is possible for winds to continue pushing the fire east towards Eureka.

The forecast is for critical fire weather through the weekend. That means windy conditions and potentially more thunderstorms that could spark more lightning caused fires.

"The areas that we should be really on alert on with lightning danger is anywhere," says Flathead County Emergency Manager, Rick Sacca.

Southeast of Superior along I-90, managers of the Sunrise Fire are preparing for this weekend’s forecast red flag fire weather.

Mary Rasmussen is a public information officer on the fire. 

"We don’t feel that there is any imminent threat of the fire jumping the Clark Fork River. We are planning for it in case it does happen."

Fire managers say that long-range spotting has the potential to cross the Clark Fork River and I-90, impacting traffic, the Montana Rail Link rail line, transmission lines and additional structures. 

The Sunrise has now burned more than 16,000 acres and is 20 percent contained.

"Over the next couple of days, fire managers are going to be strategically introducing fire into unburned areas on the ground in a manner reduce the amount of fuels, so that if a wind event came through the fire wouldn’t pick up and run," Rasmussen says.

Evacuation orders remain in place for the Cougar Gulch, Quartz Creek and Verde Creek Zones.

There is a community meeting scheduled for the Sunrise and Burdette Fires this Saturday from

7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The meeting will also be live-streamed on Facebook.

Smoke from the more than 10,000 acre Rice Ridge Fire continues to create Hazardous air quality

levels in the Seeley Lake area.

Kristen Miller is a public information officer on the Rice Ridge fire.

"The location of this fire is really in between two mountain ranges, and so it is really kind like a big bowl and the smoke will just kind of sit down right in there," Miller says.

The Missoula County health department Wednesday recommended people leave Seeley Lake because of the poor air quality. Children and adults, and anyone with respiratory disease such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion.

The Rice Ridge Fire, at 10 percent containment, is burning in a mix of dead and downed lodgepole pine and conifers in the Lolo National Forest. 

Yesterday the fire burned actively in the east, away from Seeley Lake toward the Bob Marshall Wilderness in remote, inaccessible terrain. Today efforts are concentrating on slowing down  southeast movement of the fire. Helicopters and several airplanes are supporting those efforts.

With a red flag warning in effect for the weekend, Miller advises people in the area to stay alert.

"We really just want people to stay vigilant and we want them to remain prepared and to just be cautious. We’ve got a lot of firefighter personnel and equipment working in the area. So we’re asking them to slow down on the roads and just be really careful. "

More than 250 people attended a meeting last night about the Sunrise Fire. The meeting can be

viewed on the Lolo National Forest Facebook page.

Updated 1:30 p.m.

Multiple lightning strikes were recorded Thursday night across northwest Montana with confirmed fires in all jurisdictions.

Glacier National Park seems to be bearing the brunt of most of the confirmed smoke reports. There are reports of at least 150 confirmed lightning strikes in the park Thursday night. Details, including exact locations of new fires there are sparse at this hour, but here’s what we know thanks to Flathead Area Interagency Fire Information:

The Sprague Fire is now listed at 80+ acres.

The Rogers Fire was at 2 acres and burning in heavy timber

The Vaught Fire is .1 acre.

The size of the Apgar, Mt. Brown and Nyack fires are currently  listed as “Unknown”.

The following Glacier National Park trails are now closed: Apgar Lookout Trail, Howe Ridge Trail, Camas Trail, Trout Lake Trail, the Sperry Trail from Lake McDonald to Sperry Chalet (including all secondary trails such as Synder Trail), John’s Lake Trail, and Lincoln Lake Trail.

Backcountry campgrounds in the areas listed above are closed and backcountry users in those areas are being walked out. Those include Arrow, Camas, Snyder, Sperry, and Lincoln Backcountry Campgrounds. Other backcountry areas in the park are still open for day use.

No new overnight backcountry permits will be issued today to reduce the number of people overnighting in the backcountry while the park assesses the impacts from last night’s storm. Sperry Chalet guests will either hike out via the Gunsight Pass Trail, or remain in place while the Sprague fire is being assessed. Guests with reservations for tonight will not be able to access the chalet. Additional updates will be available as the fire is further evaluated. The structures in the Sperry Chalet complex are not immediately threatened, however the main trail accessing the chalet may be impacted by the fire. No horseback rides will depart from the Lake McDonald Corral today.

A Type III incident commander has been assigned and additional resources are being ordered. The initial attack for these fires is being managed with park and Flathead National Forest fire management staff and law enforcement, including air support.

Most areas of the park remain open including all areas of the North Fork (all closures have been lifted from earlier this week), Apgar Village, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Granite Park Chalet, Two Medicine, St. Mary, and Many Glacier.

Two new fires were reported since yesterday on the Flathead National Forest. One of them, the Cleft Rock, came in at .10 acre and is now out.

Firefighters are responding to another called the Van Peak Fire. Its size is currently listed as ‘unknown’.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation initial attack teams have also responded to a handful of small fire starts and smoke report checks in northwestern Montana.

Updated 10:43 a.m.

New spot fires were reported last night on the 1,652 acre Gibralter Ridge Fire east of Eureka. Last night’s east wind caused a number of spot fires to develop on the west of Foothills road. 

These small fires are generally located near the Foothills Road and Lick Lake Road junction. Night crews were busy identifying these spot fires and working to suppress them. As of 6:00 Friday morning no structures had been lost to the fire. Firefighters will continue to patrol for spot fires on private and State lands and will use Foothill road as a control line to minimize the threat to the structures in the area.

Crews today will continue to work north and south of the fire to thin the vegetation to modify fire behavior which will provide for firefighters the best opportunity to hold the fire. No additional evacuations have been called for. The following areas are still under evacuation: Sherman Creek, Griffith Creek, Therriault Pass Rd, and Stevens Creek. Other areas, including Glen Lake and Sinclair Creek (south/east of West Road) are under pre-evacuation. A Public Meeting is planned for today (August 11) at 6:00 p.m. in the Lincoln County High School Auditorium.

Seeley Lake’s 10,194 acre Rice Ridge Fire is now estimated to be 10-percent contained.

Yesterday Firefighters had a productive day building and reinforcing containment lines on the south and west flanks. With the southeast flank being the highest priority, crews worked on an indirect line from Morrell Mountain Lookout down a ridge to Cottonwood Lakes Road. There they removed brush from the road southward to North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Helicopters dropped retardant in the Swamp Creek area to keep the fire from spreading southward. Heavy equipment was utilized to build a containment line that will connect West Morrell Road northward to the 2015 Morrell Complex burn scar. Scooper planes and fire bosses held the west flank in check in the Rice Creek area. 

The fire burned actively in the east, away from town toward the Bob Marshall Wilderness in remote, inaccessible terrain. Firefighters today will progress with line construction and road brushing along Cottonwood Lakes Road. Fire managers will assess the viability of using another ridge that extends from Morrell Mountain Lookout north toward the Wilderness as a control line to stop the southeast progress of the fire. Heavy equipment will continue building a containment line along the west flank, with work finishing in approximately four more days. Two helicopters and several airplanes will be available to drop water and retardant, as needed.

The Seeley Lake area should expect continued heavy smoke conditions reaching hazardous levels this morning and tonight. Active children and adults, and anyone with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion. Earlier this week Missoula County's health department made the unprecedented recommendation that Seeley Lake evacuate because of the pollution.

Fire crews continue to chip away at the 19,705-acre Little Hogback Fire which is the largest of the three incidents that make up the 28,625 acre Sapphire Complex burning in the Rock Creek Drainage .

Crews Thursday used a helicopter for aerial ignition to remove unburned fuels between the fire and eastern containment line. Structure assessment and protection work continued along upper Willow Creek and southern Rock Creek corridors. Additional resources have been assigned to a night shift for patrolling and holding in these areas. Firefighters will work to extend indirect dozer line westward from Ram Mountain and improve a hand line along Sheep Ridge today.

Goat Creek Fire: 8,056 acres and 75% contained. Yesterday, a small firing operation was conducted near Golden Mountain to improve and add depth to existing containment lines. Helicopter water drops were used to assist in this work. Heavy equipment is being utilized to skid and deck timber from indirect line construction on the east side of the fire. Patrol and monitoring efforts will be conducted in the lower Rock Creek and Brewster Creek areas today.

Sliderock Fire: 864 acres, 30% contained. Fire resources scouted new containment line locations today, and a Type II initial attack crew will begin line construction. Today, the fire will be monitored and patrolled and aircraft will be utilized to hold existing lines.

A stage 3 evacuation order continues for the Cougar Gulch, Quartz Creek and Verde Creek Zones on the Sunrise Fire southeast of Superior. That incident is now 16,200 acres with 20-percent containment reported.

Engine crews are patrolling for spots. Day operations will continue to secure fire perimeter around structures in Sunrise Creek and Verde Creek. Mop-up continues. Planes and helicopters will be used to reinforce ground efforts and in inaccessible terrain. Burnout operations continue in Quartz Creek. Structure prep is occurring in in Cougar Creek and Riverbend. Continued fire growth to the north and south will threaten structures. Long-range spotting has the potential to cross the Clark Fork River and I-90, impacting traffic, the Montana Rail Link rail line, transmission lines and additional structures.

Over the next two days Stage II evacuations are expected with increased winds from the southwest. Type 1 crews and type 3 engine strike teams are needed to hold the indirect line currently in place and to protect the structures.

Glacier National Park: A storm that moved through the park late Thursday afternoon triggered approximately 150 lightning strikes throughout the park. Multiple fires have been reported. Fires are suspected or known in the Apgar Lookout area, the Nyack area, Sprague drainage, and Camas drainage.

The following trails are closed: Apgar Lookout Trail, Howe Ridge Trail, Camas Trail, Trout Lake Trail, the Sperry Trail from Lake McDonald to Sperry Chalet (including all secondary trails such as Synder Trail), John’s Lake Trail, and Lincoln Lake Trail.

Backcountry campgrounds in the areas listed above are closed and backcountry users in those areas are being walked out. Those include Arrow, Camas, Snyder, Sperry, and Lincoln Backcountry Campgrounds. Other backcountry areas in the park are still open for day use.

No new overnight backcountry permits will be issued today to reduce the number of people overnighting in the backcountry while the park assesses the impacts from last night’s storm. Sperry Chalet guests will either hike out via the Gunsight Pass Trail, or remain in place while the Sprague fire is being assessed. Guests with reservations for tonight will not be able to access the chalet. Additional updates will be available as the fire is further evaluated. The structures in the Sperry Chalet complex are not immediately threatened, however the main trail accessing the chalet may be impacted by the fire. No horseback rides will depart from the Lake McDonald Corral today.

A Type III incident commander has been assigned and additional resources are being ordered. The initial attack for these fires is being managed with park and Flathead National Forest fire management staff and law enforcement, including air support.

Most areas of the park remain open including all areas of the North Fork (all closures have been lifted from earlier this week), Apgar Village, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Granite Park Chalet, Two Medicine, St. Mary, and Many Glacier.

Fire managers expect hot and dry conditions to persist through the weekend. Additional trail closures are possible as conditions change or new fires are detected. Visitors should check the park’s trail status page for the most current closure information.

The park is currently experiencing a power outage on the west side of the park unrelated to the fires. The outage extends beyond the park boundary. This may impact the park’s ability to provide up to the minute fire updates. 

Copyright 2017 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.