080317-mis-nws-rice-aerial-01 (copy)

A converted DC-10 jumbo jet drops a load of retardant on the Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake in early August. The fire has burned throughout the month, and forced a series of new mandatory evacuations Monday night.

New evacuations orders were issued — and then expanded — in Seeley Lake Monday night after authorities determined the Rice Ridge fire posed "an immediate threat."

At 9 p.m., Missoula County Public Schools alerted staff and students that Seeley Swan High would be closed Tuesday because of the evacuations. At about the same time, the Missoula County Sheriff's Office expanded mandatory evacuations ordered earlier in the evening.

Late Monday evening, the fire was about a half-mile from the nearest structures, in the Morrell Creek area, said Chad Mullman, public information officer for the Rice Ridge fire.

Monday afternoon saw an unforeseen shift in the winds from west to northwest, driving the fire and forcing a scramble of activity, he said. "We're putting all sorts of night shift crews up on this fire, generally actively engaging it this evening, trying to hold it where it's at."

The mandatory evacuations issued Monday night are:

• The northern boundary – the junction of Highway 83 and Cedar Lane northeast to Morrell Creek Road. The boundary continues along the Cottonwood Lakes Road east to the forest boundary.

• Eastern Boundary — Cottonwood Lakes Road at the forest boundary and south to the northern boundary of the Double Arrow.

• Southern Boundary — the junction of Highway 83 and Whitetail Drive east to the junction of Whitetail Drive and Dolly Varden. The southern boundary continues east to include the area north of the Commons Area and eastward to the intersection of Montana Drive and South Canyon Drive, continuing southeast along Montana Drive to the junction with Glacier Drive and then south to the junction with Double Arrow Road including Pyramid Loop and all areas in the Double Arrow Subdivision to the south and east.

• Western Boundary — the junction of Highway 83 and Cedar Lane south to the junction of Highway 83 and Whitetail Drive.

The Missoula County Sheriff's office also issued an evacuation warning that includes the area of south Boy Scout Road north to Tamaracks Resort, west of Highway 83 and east of the lake. 

Because of the new mandatory evacuations, the Red Cross reopened its shelter in Missoula at University Congregational Church, 405 University Ave.

On Sunday, an unauthorized drone flight shut down helicopter operations over the Rice Ridge fire during the brief afternoon break from smoke inversions.

“That’s when fire activity was picking up and getting rolling, and then we had the drone incursion,” Rice Ridge spokeswoman Erin Fryer said Monday. “We couldn’t resume air operations after the drone was spotted. It was late enough in the day that we had to shut down.”

The need for helicopter water loads increased enough that Seeley Lake's water body was closed again Monday. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials ordered a cessation of all swimming, boating and fishing on the lake until aerial operations are completed. 

The fire northeast of Seeley Lake has burned 27,863 acres since it started on July 24. Over the weekend, it moved south and west of the town toward the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and Shanley Creek drainage. Most of its 22 percent containment has taken place on the western flank between the burning area and Seeley Lake.

***

Heavy smoke affected most of western Montana as a high-pressure ridge kept valley air stable and stagnant on Monday. Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield said that’s likely to stay the case through mid-week or longer.

“There’s a pretty good possibility this is going to be a rough week,” Coefield said Monday. “The high-pressure ridge we’re under breaks down by Wednesday, but then we have some very active fire behavior expected. There’s a potential for more smoke generation between now and then, plus what we get from out-of-state fires upwind.”

Missoula, Hamilton, Frenchtown and Seeley Lake all recorded Unhealthy air quality on Monday afternoon. Active children, adults and anyone with respiratory diseases are advised to limit their prolonged outdoor exertions.

On the Lolo Peak fire, crews set burnout fires on the west face of Bass Creek on Monday. The operations were intended to link up several other burned areas and prevent further spread of the main fire to the south, according to fire incident commanders. National Guard troops that were brought in to help with roadblocks and other security work started demobilizing on Sunday. The fire has burned 37,844 acres and has about 1,000 people on scene.

Smoke from the Liberty fire east of Arlee was pouring into the Seeley Lake Valley on Monday as it continued to burn in the Liberty Meadows and Gold Creek drainages north of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. It has a crew of 422 working mainly to confine the fire with natural barriers. It has burned 12,801 acres.

The Sapphire Complex of three fires in the Rock Creek drainage 25 miles east of Missoula is approaching complete containment, with 100 percent of Goat Creek, 100 percent of Sliderock and 97 percent of Little Hogback reporting completed firelines around their most troublesome perimeters. That’s produced a boundary line nearly 72 miles long around the three fires. About 41 miles of Rock Creek Road and Willow Creek Road are being prepared for a burnout operation. This is the largest fire complex in western Montana, having burned a total 39,189 acres.

The Sprague fire in Glacier National Park continued to move into the bottom of Snyder Creek and lower Sprague Creek between Lake McDonald Lodge and Sperry Chalet. It has burned 1,553 acres but has not yet damaged the chalet or hotel area. Trails west of Gunsight Pass remain closed, but the Going-to-the-Sun Road is unaffected.

Officials on the Sunrise fire near Superior reported 77 percent containment as they prepared for a hot and dry day on Monday. Much of the activity involves mop-up work and repair of fire lines along Trout Creek Road. It has burned 25,291 acres and has a team of 360 people.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal firefighters report 60 percent containment on the 490-acre Blue Bay fire on Monday. Activity picked up on Sunday afternoon with increased temperatures and falling humidity. Crews blasted some fire line on Saturday and expect to mop up that part of the burn area through the week.

The Gibralter Ridge fire 7 miles east of Eureka was settling down after consuming about 1,500 acres during a wind event on Thursday. It now covers 5,112 acres and approached Graves Creek Road. A crew of 87 people is assigned.

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