Helena-area fire

A forest fire burns on BLM land north of Helena last week. Dry conditions, coupled with lightning, have sparked dozens fires of in Northwest Montana.

Photo provided by Leo Dutton

KALISPELL -- Firefighters chased small wildfires all over western Montana over the weekend and Monday, most of them caused by lightning.

In the Bitterroot, more than 500 lightning strikes starting Sunday and continuing into Monday sparked at least four fires on the Bitterroot National Forest. And in the Flathead,  four larger blazes followed a lightning storm that swept through northwest Montana on Friday.

Record-breaking high temperatures and low fuel moisture levels have combined to create conditions where wildfires can grow quickly. The DNRC’s Northwest Land Office saw 20 new fires over the weekend, including some that were human-caused from escaped bonfires, power line equipment and fireworks.

All four of the larger fires were burning between Kalispell and Libby.

The largest is the Lazier Creek 3 fire near Plains that grew from 80 acres Sunday morning to about 1,000 acres Monday. That fire sent up a column that was visible from Kalispell on Sunday.

Owners of some nearby cabins and some campers were told to evacuate. Preparations were also underway to protect a nearby historic ranger station.

The 50-acre Rogers Mountain fire is several miles northwest of Happy’s Inn near Libby. Officials recommended Monday that communities north of Highway 2 and northwest of Happy’s Inn take time to prepare in case the fire moves in their direction.

The other two larger fires are the North Meadow and Grubb fires. Each of those was about 15 acres Sunday night. Both are near Libby.

A Type 2 Incident Management team is scheduled to take over management of the fires Tuesday morning, but it could be faced with challenges in finding crews and aircraft to battle the blazes.

DNRC Northwest Land Office Operation’s Manager Dan Cassidy said national firefighting resources are stretched thin due to busy fire seasons in southwestern states, including some large fires in California.

“Right now, there’s a shortage of 20-man crews and aircraft,” Cassidy said.

Turning the four fires over to an incident management team will allow local crews to focus on initial attack efforts, Cassidy said.

Most of the current fires in the Flathead are burning on private land owned by Weyerhaeuser, with some spilling onto state land. So far, there is only one eight-acre blaze on the Flathead National Forest.

The dry conditions have caught some forest visitors unaware.

“The fire behavior that we’re seeing right now is pretty impressive for this time in July,” Cassidy said. “These are the kinds of conditions that we normally see in August.”

While the grass is still green in many of the areas where the fires are burning, the larger fuels such as sticks and logs are dry enough to burn and carry the fire.

“The fuel moisture indices are really low,” Ulwelling said. “When there is a source of ignition, they are very receptive to burning. The moisture levels in the larger fuels — the 100-hour and 1,000-hour fuels — are appallingly low.”

Last winter’s ample snowpack and the early spring rains provided plenty of moisture to allow for growth of grasses and shrubs, but that precipitation slowed dramatically in May and June.

There hasn’t been any rain so far in July.

“We’re seeing fires caused by haying equipment that we normally wouldn’t see until the third cutting in August,” Ulwelling said. “They are just finishing up their first cutting.”

Temperatures are expected to return to close to the century mark this weekend after a slightly cooler start to the week. There is still no precipitation in sight.

Cassidy said people venturing into the woods need to be extremely cautious with anything that can cause a spark.

“People are misjudging just how dry it is out there,” Cassidy said. “They need to be extremely careful with any ignition source, including putting away the fireworks. The Fourth of July is over and fireworks are always illegal in the forested zone anyway.

“We’ve got plenty of business right now,” he said. “We don’t need any more.”

McKay noted that firefighters have responded to eight human-caused fires, and six lightning-sparked wildfires this summer on the Bitterroot forest. All were kept to less than one acre.

“We’re really asking people to be very careful in making sure they’re not leaving any fires, and that their campfires are cold to the touch before they leave,” McKay said. “I think we’ll be fairly busy just responding to lightning-caused fires this week and we don’t want to pull resources off those fires to fight fires that people aren’t properly putting out.”

Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman contributed to this article.

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