Even as weary firefighters around western Montana braced for predicted high winds and lightning storms Wednesday, the governor’s budget director announced that the state's firefighting fund will be empty by the end of the week.
About half of the fund, $30 million, was removed in July to patch holes elsewhere in the state budget. The state has already spent $44.5 million fighting fires this year.
Budget Director Dan Villa announced Wednesday that state spending would be cut even more, in part because law requires the state to find more money to pay for wildfire suppression. The governor’s office said they are seeking $40 million to cover the rest of this year and next year’s fire season.
"The state will not stop paying for fire suppression efforts across the state," the governor's office said in a statement. "The safety of firefighters, Montanans and their property is the governor's top priority."
The news came on a day when possible thunderstorms and unstable, gusty winds threatened new problems for area fires, with lightning creating sparks or winds fueling expansion.
As winds picked up Wednesday afternoon, fire managers cast a wary eye on the northwest edge of the Rice Ridge fire. A new evacuation warning was issued to some 90 more residences in the 5½ miles from Tamarack Resort along Seeley Lake to Bear Grass Lane, at the outlet of Lake Inez. Residents on both sides of Highway 83 were asked to prepare for a short-order evacuation.
The warning extended to Bear Grass Lane and Loon Lane on the west side of Inez, and Camp Creek across the highway. The north and south sides of Boy Scout Road north are included for the first mile to the Fawn Creek Intersection.
Evacuation orders on Monday affected 1,028 address points, according to Inciweb.
The fire had jumped another 1,600 acres to 32,222 by Wednesday morning, with more expected during a Red Flag warning set from 1 p.m. Wednesday to 9 p.m. Thursday. Low humidity and unstable, gusty winds associated with thunder cells were playing havoc with the fire.
The fire information board at Rovero’s in downtown Seeley Lake was discontinued Wednesday. The information board at Valley Market south of town will continue to be staffed by fire information officers and representatives of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department.
A shelter site is located in Missoula at the UCC Church, 405 University Avenue. Anyone seeking shelter may call the Red Cross of Montana at 1-800-272-6668.
The Missoula County Sheriff's office on Wednesday evening lifted an evacuation warning for the Lolo Peak fire for the first nine miles east of Lolo on U.S. Highway 12, and on the Highway 93 South corridor for roughly five miles south of Lolo. It pertains to residents living in the Highway 12 corridor from milemarker 24, near and including Arena Drive, to Lolo, and to those living along Highway 93 South from milemarker 79, near and including the gravel pit off Old Highway 93 and McClain Creek Road, north to Highway 12 at Lolo.
The fire saw minimal growth Tuesday and Wednesday morning, but dry thunderstorms moved into the area Wednesday afternoon and evening from the southwest. They brought with them the possibility of outflow winds, lightning and the potential for new fire starts. A new incident management team transitioned into place. In a video update, Special Operations Chief Mike Granger said the fire's northern edge was quiet, with nothing showing on heat radar, so it was placed into patrol status. Crews continued mop-up work along the eastern edge and scouted south in case the fire continued to burn that direction.
The fire glow seen at night is largely from spot fires just north of Carlton Creek near the center of the blaze that's shaped like an upside-down horseshoe, Granger said.
The Lolo Peak fire is the most expensive of western Montana’s fires at an estimated cost of $33.8 million.
The southwest portion of the Sunrise fire on the east side of Trout Creek in Mineral County remains the most active. Winds were mostly out of the west and the fire was backing and flanking to the west against the winds.
The Trout Creek road was reopened Wednesday. Fire managers asked that the public drive slowly, not stop along the roadway, watch for fire vehicles and obey the special closure that remains in effect in and around the fire perimeter.
The burn area of the Sunrise fire remained at just under 26,000 acres before the winds picked up Wednesday evening.
The 23,000-acre Meyers fire in Granite County experienced moderate to extreme behavior with uphill runs, running, flanking fire, group torching and short-range spotting. Lightning sparked the fire on July 14 and containment remains at just 5 percent.
Projected and scattered dry lighting “could result in a significant commitment for local IA (interagency) resources,” Inciweb reported Wednesday evening. “Large fire activity is expected to increase incrementally depending on extent and severity of the thunderstorms and associated winds.”
The fire on the northern perimeter continues to move to the north and east near Zeke Meadows, and is expected to increase significantly once it becomes established on the west and south aspects of Lone Pine Ridge, immediately east of Zeke Meadows. On the southern perimeter the fire will continue to spread to the south, though slope and wind direction should check the growth to the south and west. A Forest Service structure at Frog Pond is threatened.
Air conditions hit Unhealthy throughout all of Missoula County on Wednesday afternoon, according to air quality specialist Sarah Coefield. That actually represented an improvement for Lolo, Florence, Rainy Lake, Arlee and Seeley Lake.
Missoula itself saw little or no change Wednesday afternoon, while the air in Frenchtown and Alberton deteriorated to Unhealthy, according to the Wednesday afternoon air quality update from Coefield, of the Missoula City-County Health Department.
The lingering smoke prompted the Health Department and Climate Smart Missoula, with the assistance of partner agencies, to provide HEPA filters to classrooms in Seeley Lake and Lolo to clean air for students.
And, the University of Montana moved its Wednesday convocation, which welcomes incoming students, indoors to the Dennison Theatre due to the smoky skies.
"The smoke is going to continue for a long time, but I'm feeling a bit more confident that (Thursday) we may see some clearing, thanks to a passing cold front, Coefield wrote. Still, she warned, "we may see conditions get worse before they get better."
The prolonged exposure to unhealthy air conditions has a cumulative effect, Coefield said, adding that the conditions could hang around for another month.
“When air quality is Unhealthy it is important that you respect not only the current conditions, but also the fact that your body has been fending off the pollution's effects for a month, and is likely getting a little worn down," Coefield wrote.