Montana state parks imposed new campfire restrictions Wednesday as red-flag weather kept wildland firefighters nervous.
Weather forecasts called for 40 mph winds across western Montana on Wednesday afternoon, as a cold front moved through the region. National Weather Service forecasts called for clear skies in the Missoula area, but smoky conditions again by Friday.
“It’s hard to know from one day to the next,” Missoula City-County Health Department air quality technician Sarah Coefield said. “In Missoula County, we’re doing pretty well, with a little haze in the afternoon. But south of Missoula, the Mustang Complex is putting out a tremendous plume (of smoke) and it just landed on the Hamilton area and then moved on to hit Butte and Bozeman. We’re in a pocket of good air now, but it isn’t true everywhere.”
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokeswoman Paula Short said the gusty weather was likely to kick up fire activity, which could cause trouble for motorists and others traveling in burn areas.
“Please do not stop along the road to observe aircraft, remember to use headlights in smoky areas, and use extreme caution with any activity with the potential to cause a fire,” Short said in an email. “Fire restrictions are in effect for the majority of the state.”
That includes six state parks in western Montana: Beavertail Hill, Frenchtown Pond, Lost Creek, Fish Creek, Placid Lake and Salmon Lake state parks. It also includes the Alberton Gorge river corridor, as well as fishing access sites along the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers. Campfires are permitted only in designated fire rings or grates, and smoking is prohibited except in vehicles or developed areas clear of burnable material.
All open fires except camp stoves are prohibited at the Lost Creek and Fish Creek state parks. Smoking is not allowed there either.
Campfires are still allowed in approved rings or grates at U.S. Forest Service campgrounds across most of western Montana. That includes all developed campgrounds in the Lolo National Forest.
The Elevation Mountain fire between Ovando and Drummond triggered the closure of 22 square miles of public land in the Elk Creek area. The 585-acre blaze continues to move east and has sparked several spot fires ahead of its perimeter, Short said. It is burning in very heavy timber, including dead lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. It is 30 percent contained with a crew of 395 people.
The nearby Felan Gulch fire north of the Bearmouth exit of Interstate 90 has burned 142 acres. Fire manager Bob Fry reported the area 80 percent contained, and said rehabilitation work has already started on some of the bulldozer lines
In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Elbow Pass Complex of fires grew about 45 acres to 20,227 acres. It showed activity along its western edge in the Rapid Creek, Dry Fork, Green Fork and South Sun River areas. A sprinkler system in the Ellis Creek drainage is set up to protect the Sun River corridor. The area has lookouts and structure protection crews in place, but no one is actively confronting the fire.
Condon Mountain fire crews wrapped up their activity Wednesday after the blaze was reduced to mainly hot spots burning well inside its perimeter. The fire has burned 1,746 acres since it started July 28.
On the Flathead Indian Reservation, a new start Wednesday had burned about five acres in the Jocko area, 20 miles east of Arlee. Fire spokesman Curtis Matt said because of its remote location and dangerous terrain, no personnel were deployed.
The Schley Creek fire three miles east of Gray Wolf Peak Casino grew from one acre to 15 between Tuesday and Wednesday, Matt said. However, it is burning in a rock-slide zone that’s not safe for firefighters, and is not expected to reach the valley floor.
Three other fires on the reservation have moved into mop-up stage, Matt said. They are the West Garceau fire at 9,800 acres, Perma Ridge fire at 300 acres and Valley Creek fire at 30 acres.
The Wedge Creek fire continues to grow about 100 acres a day near the Scapegoat Wilderness boundary north of Ovando. But it is mainly creeping through scattered fuel supplies in rocky slopes. Three people are monitoring the 1,247-acre fire in case it moves into more sensitive territory.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.