Idaho wildfire smoke chokes Missoula, Bitterroot valleys

2013-08-12T05:45:00Z 2014-06-10T06:31:42Z Idaho wildfire smoke chokes Missoula, Bitterroot valleys missoulian.com

Smoke poured into the Missoula Valley on Sunday from fires burning in the region, and it could be even more thick and possibly “unhealthy” by Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service and the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Jeff Kitsmiller, an agency meteorologist, said most of the smoke is coming from a complex of fires near Boise, Idaho, and it isn’t likely to clear for at least “a few more days.” He said the air flow could keep smoke around until the middle of next week, and new fires are possible given conditions.

“We are expecting more lightning (Sunday), and we’ve had lightning the last few days, and we are seeing more fire starts,” Kitsmiller said. “So those could add (to the smoke).”

The air quality in the Missoula and Frenchtown areas was “moderate” as of 5 p.m. Sunday, but it could worsen overnight in the Missoula Valley to “unhealthy,” according to the Health Department. Much smoke was coming from the Bitterroot Valley.

“While most of the smoke from the Idaho fires and other locations south and west of Missoula has remained above the valley floors, the smoke could start to heavily impact the valleys this (Sunday) evening and tonight,” reads the air quality update from Ben Schmidt, air quality specialist for the department.

The air in Hamilton already was considered “unhealthy” on Sunday, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Under that designation, everyone “should limit prolonged outdoor exertion,” and those who are active and have respiratory diseases should avoid the same.

As of roughly 5 p.m., Hamilton was the only city in Montana with “unhealthy” air. Under the “moderate” designation, “unusually sensitive people should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.”

For updates on air quality, go to http://todaysair.mt.gov/.

***

As of Sunday, the Gold Pan Complex had burned 17,132 acres and cost $5.5 million to date, according to a news release from the Bitterroot National Forest.

“This (Sunday) could be the busiest day yet for thunderstorm activity over the Gold Pan Fire Complex,” reads the release, citing incident meteorologist Tim Sedlock. “ … An increased chance of lightning is predicted (Sunday), creating a hazard for firefighters on the fire lines.”

Most of the fire movement was in Lunch Creek and Grass Gulch on the southeast side of the fire, according to the release. It also said the smoke in Missoula came from the Pony Complex Fire near Mountain Home, Ida., and not from the Gold Pan Complex.

Firefighters continued snag removal along Magruder Road and mop up on the south side of the road, according to the release. Crews will patrol the hand line from Magruder Road to Trail No. 12 south of Pole Mountain.

“If thunderstorms with downdraft winds move over the fire, this could produce spotting up to a distance of one mile,” the release says.

***

Magruder road remains closed from Fales Flat campground on the east and Observation Point in Idaho on the west; the campground remains open to the public. An emergency closure order is in place for all Forest Service roads and trails in the area.

Lightning from a storm Saturday night and Sunday morning started two fires on the Flathead Indian Reservation, according to Curt Matt of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The Ferry Basin fire six miles west of the National Bison Range was 110 acres as of Sunday afternoon and still spreading.

The fire was burning in timber and grass, and it wasn’t threatening structures. Fighting the fire were “tribal cats/skidgines, three water tenders, four type six contract engines, three hand crews, and two helicopters.”

“Additional crews and machinery are being ordered to help suppress this fire,” reads a memo from Matt.

Firefighters quickly contained the Dancing Boy fire at a quarter of an acre. The fire also started with lighting and burned four miles east of Arlee.

***

The Firestone Flats fire, which burned 1,570 acres, was controlled, according to the memo. An “Infra Red” flight showed four hot spots, and the fire’s cause remains under investigation.

“The Flathead Indian Reservation is still under a Stage I restriction, which prohibits building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire except within a developed recreation site or improved site,” the memo says.

The Woodman Saddle fire was closest to Missoula, one mile east of the Blue Mountain Lookout, and firefighters were mopping up the fire Sunday, according to a report from Boyd Hartwig of the Lolo National Forest.

“Firefighters are … searching for hot spots and putting them out. Fireline has held though there are some hot spots that firefighters continue to locate and extinguish,” he said in his report.

One helicopter and one crew were still assigned to the fire, which was smaller than one acre.

***

Outside Sheridan, firefighters made great headway on the Indian Creek Fire, according to Leona Rodreick, public affairs officer for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Some 80 personnel worked on the fire.

“Progress on the fire is looking really good,” she wrote in an update. “We plan to start letting go of some of the engines tonight (Sunday) and more personnel tomorrow morning.”

The fire, four miles northeast of Sheridan, had burned 118 acres and was 30 percent contained, according to the news release. Resources included two hand crews, six engines, two helicopters and six smokejumpers.

Firefighters were continuing to build and secure fireline and mop up hot spots within the interior, the news release said. The fire was burning grass and sage brush in steep terrain, and it was moving towards the north and east.

“Local volunteer fire departments are providing structure protection and support on the fireline,” the release said.

It also advised residents and visitors to limit travel on Wisconsin Creek and Indian Creek roads because of high fire traffic activity and firefighting equipment.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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