As somber crews returned to fight the Lolo Peak fire Thursday, they encountered extreme fire danger levels.
Those conditions — critically dry fuels, hot temperatures, low humidity, dry lightning and gusty winds — are expected to continue into the weekend.
The last measurable precipitation in the area was on June 27, according to the National Weather Service in Missoula, making July the driest since records began in 1893.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll see any here in the next week either,” said Dan Zumpfe, an NWS meteorologist in Missoula. "There’s an outside chance there could be some precipitation next Tuesday, but I wouldn’t look forward to it.”
When the fire danger is extreme, fires start quickly, spread rapidly and burn intensely, according to Tod McKay with the Bitterroot National Forest.
A change in the weather helped contain the Lolo Peak fire, which claimed the life of a Hotshot from California Wednesday. Growth Thursday was limited to about 240 acres, bringing the burn area to 6,542 acres.
Wednesday's cool front, strong wind gusts from the northeast that pushed flames back toward areas already burned, and retardant drops — 59,000 gallons on Wednesday alone — helped keep the fire in check.
“We have to be patient and let the fire work its way to us,'' said Mark Struble, the fire’s public information officer. “Right now it’s smoking pretty good in four spots and working its way down from Lantern Ridge. The good news is it doesn’t look like we have anything in the tree crowns and it’s just burning junk on the ground. That’s sometimes the best you can hope for.
“But having said that, this is a full suppression fire.”
While firefighters got a brief respite from high heat Thursday, many communities dealt with choking smoke Thursday morning. And with a shift in the winds, more smoke may be on the way from fires in Washington and British Columbia.
Seeley Lake woke up to "hazardous'' air conditions Thursday. And Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, said conditions Friday morning could be equally bad.
The air in communities near fires — Seeley Lake, Rock Creek and Alberton — could be very unhealthy to hazardous.
"There are no significant breezes in our overnight forecast, which means smoke from active fires will settle in the valleys and won't move off until the sun rises and inversions start to break,'' she said in an air quality update. "Conditions in Florence and Lolo are likely to be Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups or worse.''
Rice Ridge fire: "Aggressive" aerial activity was the name of the game for the Rice Ridge fire Thursday.
As the inversion lifted in the morning, aircraft were able to fly, dropping water and retardant on the fire.
"We're seeing the same fire behavior as before," public information officer Mark DeGregorio said, but without the smoke, aircraft could hit the fire and hit it hard.
Liberty fire: The Liberty firefighting crews are continuing to build containment lines while using the existing road system.
The fire, currently at 2 percent containment, has burned 3,220-acres and has warranted an evacuation warning for the Finley Creek and Placid Lake areas.
Temperatures will be warm and humidity low, creating challenges for firefighters as northwest winds press the fire to the south and southeast in the Gold Creek drainage.
Aerial operations are continuing as smoke allows enough visibility. More retardant was dropped around the Liberty fire Thursday morning. A firefighter suffered a broken arm Wednesday, but no other major injuries were reported, according to public information officer Kristen Allison.
Sunrise and Burdette fires: The Sunrise fire has grown to 11,900 acres and broke the 500-personnel mark while the Burdette fire moved closer to containment.
As extreme heat, dry conditions and no significant precipitation are forecast, growth for both fires is expected. But firefighting techniques have seemed to slow expansion.
Public information officer Meg Nemitz said that while the Sunrise fire is "active, smoking and burning...progression is going well" for the firefighters tasked with slowing it down.
As for the Burdette fire, Nemitz said that there "was not a lot of radio chatter today," which is a good thing for firefighters.
Sapphire complex: Road closures and evacuation orders are in effect for the areas surrounding the Sapphire complex as fires continue to grow. Firefighters are making progress, but winds, drying trends and warm temperatures are still dangerous.
The Goat Creek fire is up to 7,555 acres and 45 percent containment as firefighters make progress establishing direct lines using existing roads on the northwest side of the fire, according to Inciweb’s Incident Information System. An indirect fire line is still under construction on the east side of the fire.
The Little Hogback fire is at 7,976 acres and zero percent containment. Efforts in securing the southwest side of the fire were successful as firefighters and the heavy equipment taskforce continued to construct an indirect line to the east of the fire. Structures are being prepped in the Red and Yellow evacuation zones on Thursday.
The Sliderock fire is at 823 acres and is 20 percent contained. Air support delivered retardant yesterday and will continue to provide support to firefighters Thursday.