Air quality specialist Sarah Coefield dubbed herself "a harbinger of doom and sadness" Tuesday, and for good reason.
The smoke that cloaked the region all day, resulting in an unhealthy air quality rating, is not likely to dissipate, she wrote in her afternoon air quality report from the Missoula City-County Health Department.
Lacking a clearing breeze, the smoke would probably descend to ground level. To make matters worse, "Oregon and California are coming for us" — as though smoke from western Montana's fire isn't bad enough.
"A big old multi-state plume" will likely gather smoke from those two states, as well as Washington and Idaho, and waft it over western Montana, Coefield wrote.
Air quality started off hazardous Tuesday in Lolo, Florence and in Seeley Lake — which saw its 17th morning of hazardous air quality since Aug. 1 — but "improved" to unhealthy in Lolo, and unhealthy for sensitive groups in Seeley Lake and Florence.
Unhealthy air quality means people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors. Unhealthy for sensitive groups means that those people should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
Holland Lake, Frenchtown and Alberton and Arlee all generally saw ratings of unhealthy for sensitive groups Tuesday afternoon, while Condon's air cleared out to moderate quality.
Despite that brief improvement, Coefield warned that conditions in Lolo, Florence and Seeley Lake were likely to be very unhealthy or hazardous by Wednesday morning, while conditions in Arlee, the Potomac Valley and Greenough may be unhealthy or worse.
Conditions on fires around western Montana Tuesday afternoon were as follows, according to InciWeb, the national wildlfire reporting service.
Lolo Peak fire: U.S. Highway 12 has been completely reopened according to InciWeb, the national wildfire information service. Pilot car operations are no longer running, according to the Missoula County and Ravalli County sheriff’s offices.
The speed limit is reduced to 45 mph and the Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said in a news release that “drivers are cautioned that there is a large amount of incident-related traffic and smoke and people are asked to drive carefully.”
The Lolo Peak fire has burned more than 32,000 acres and has 1,100-plus personnel attached and working on the fire.
Firefighters are continuing to secure fire lines, and aimed to finish some burnout operations Tuesday. The fire west of Florence causes concern as it might continue to move south. Fire crews are watchful and have prepared control lines with hose, pumps and water tanks.
More evacuation orders were downgraded Monday to warnings for residents in Balsam Root, Folsom and Highland roads as well as those residences north of West Carlton Creek Road and east of the county-maintained road sign.
Old Highway 93 is still closed to all traffic from Tie Chute Lane north.
Rice Ridge fire: The Rice Ridge fire has now burned 16,117 acres, the size of Missoula, and is currently 9 percent contained.
Public information officer Jacob Brollier said that the eastern portion of the fire has been quiet as the fire moves into an old burn in a more sparsely wooded area. The southwest portion of the fire in the Morrell Creek area was burning and being tended to by helicopters and firefighters, but overall progress has been acceptable.
Smoke in Seeley Lake was not as Tuesday as it has been recently, but Condon and Holland Lake were expected to feel some effects of the fire Tuesday.
Sapphire Complex: The Sapphire Complex has quietly burned nearly 40,000 acres in the Lolo National Forest over the past month.
The Goat Creek and Sliderock fires are being controlled with burnout operations and helicopter drops, as the Goat Creek fire hits 83 percent containment and Sliderock edges up to 30 percent.
The Little Hogback fire has been giving the Incident Management Team “fits,” according to public information officer Jill Cobb. Difficult terrain has made winds highly problematic as any new weather pattern will make the fire active.
“There are thunderstorm concerns,” Cobb said about storms forecast later this week. “Downdrafts mean the fire doesn’t move in expected ways,” and the canyons and other terrain can make life difficult for firefighters.
“Lines are being tested, but we’re feeling pretty good about how they’ve held so far,” Cobb said.
Sunrise fire: The Sunrise fire near Superior is now 50 percent contained.
Fire crews are building direct line near the Eagle Rock ridge area in an attempt to keep the fire from Trout Creek. Blasting will occur in Trout Creek to remove dangerous cedar trees.
A community meeting will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at the Lozeau Lodge Pavilion at 7 p.m.
Liberty fire: The Liberty fire grew 500 acres Monday while firefighters managed burnout operations on the east side of the fire.
The fire is increasing in activity as temperatures rise with crown runs, and some short-distance spotting has been seen.
Predicted dry thunderstorms will threaten the Liberty fire as unpredictable winds and lightning are cause for concern. Some potential spotting can occur.
Meyers fire: Midday cooling from the eclipse “kept fire activity very minimal,” according to Inciweb.
Fire crews are expanding contingency lines and indirect control lines. Plans are being made to reduce impact to communities around the area as the fire continues to grow.
“Until there is a significant change in weather that provides enough moisture for a fire ending event we will manage the Meyers fire by planning for the worst and work for the best,” Incident Commander Jay Esperance was quoted as saying on Inciweb.
The Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest has expanded road closures and now includes U.S. Forest Service Roads 893, 8684 and 8685 due to fire activity.
A community meeting is scheduled at the Georgetown Lake Volunteer Fire Department on Thursday, Aug. 24, at 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. for personalized fire briefings.
Blue Bay fire: The Blue Bay fire is at 490 acres and crossed Teepee Creek Monday, but is at 40 percent containment.
Firefighters have been constructing line with heavy equipment and dozers over the last few days. A controlled burn on the north side of the fire was delayed due to poor conditions, but will continue when possible.
Helicopters are working the area, dropping water on hot spots when needed.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Division of Fire scheduled a community meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at the Blue Bay Campground to inform the public about firefighting efforts.
The B-2000 and B-2200 Roads remain closed.
Sprague fire: The Sprague fire in Glacier National Park has burned 1,224 acres.
Aircraft dropped water from Fish Lake on Tuesday to cool hot spots and slow fire growth.
This fire is not currently threatening Sperry Chalet, but firefighters are deployed around it with hoses, sprinklers and water all prepared for action if needed. According to InciWeb, “given the location of the chalet in a rocky, subalpine environment with sparse vegetation, fire managers are confident that the structure protection measures in place will protect the historic buildings if needed.”
Most of Glacier is still open, including Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Granite Park Chalet, the North Fork and Goat Haunt.
Flathead National Forest fires: Three fires are burning in the Flathead Forest.
The Scalp, Reef and Dolly Varden fires are all being monitored while being allowed to burn for their “natural ecological role, with consideration for public and firefighter safety as well as point protection of infrastructure,” according to InciWeb’s Incident Information System.