The Sawtooth fire west of Hamilton got both bigger and more contained as crews took advantage of calm weather Wednesday.
The fire’s perimeter now surrounds 5,021 acres, up from 4,869 on Tuesday afternoon. But it’s also reported 40 percent contained, up from 35 percent from the day before. Bitterroot National Forest officials also relaxed a closure order, allowing the public back into Blodgett Canyon and campground.
“Blodgett is the most popular trail in the forest,” Bitterroot spokesman Tod McKay said Wednesday. “Within a couple miles, you get back into the canyons, so it gets a lot of use. And a trail crew up there just opened it to stock after a major rock obliterated part of the pass.”
A Montana Conservation Corps crew has been working on the rock slide, roughly 11 miles into the canyon, since July to rebuild the trail. It’s been impassible to horses and almost so for people since about 325 tons of rock sheered off part of the route in 2010.
Mop-up crews also are working several hundred feet inside the fire perimeter on its eastern edge nearest a collection of private homes on Downing Mountain. The main burning now takes place on the fire’s southern and western edges in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness’s Sawtooth Canyon.
“The questions at public meetings have switched from, ‘What’s the fire doing?’ to, ‘When’s the smoke going to leave?’” McKay said. “It’s been here for two months.”
In addition to the usual culprit – fires across the border in Idaho national wilderness areas – western Montana now receives smoke from some big burns in Washington, according to Missoula city-county air quality specialist Sarah Coefield. The 35,493-acre Wenatchee fire north of Ellensburg and the 81,155-acre Barker Canyon fire 10 miles northwest of Grand Coolee Dam are particularly to blame, she said.
Hamilton air quality showed a slight improvement Wednesday afternoon after spending most of the day at “unhealthy” levels. Meanwhile, Missoula reported declining quality after a relatively clear morning. Coefield said some northwesterly breezes could bring both valleys some relief Wednesday evening.
“However, if those events don’t materialize, the smoke will keep building up,” Coefield said in an email. “It will be very important for people to watch the visibility levels when determining outdoor activity levels.”
Significant Idaho fires include the Mustang, Sheep, McGuire and Powell SBW complexes. Mustang Complex officials rescinded a closure order for public lands east of U.S. Highway 93 on Wednesday after crews controlled a spot fire outbreak that crossed the highway. The main body of the fire continues to grow on the western edge of its 329,646-acre perimeter. Crews also burned off fuels in the Hughes Creek drainage to increase protection of the highway corridor. The team of 778 people has 52 engines, 13 water tenders, three bulldozers and five helicopters assisting it.
The Powell SBW Complex of three large burns and several smaller ones now measures a cumulative 49, 725 acres. They are burning in a remote area about 45 miles southwest of Lolo. A crew of 50 continues to monitor roads and backcountry structures in the area, but is not directly fighting any of the fires.
The Sheep fire seven miles north of Riggins has burned 36,938 acres. It is 21 percent contained, with some areas still growing out of control. The McGuire fire measures 35,016 acres and has prompted stage 3 evacuation orders for Concord, Mallard Creek Ranch, Cook Ranch, Dixie/Comstock and Orogrande residents. Red River remains at stage 2 and Elk City is at stage 1 evacuation warnings. The Magruder Road corridor remains closed from Green Mountain Road to Observation Point because of the fires.
While clear air allowed residents in the Lake County area to see activity on several fires in the Mission Mountains, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal fire prevention officer Curtis Matt said none of the three showed any significant growth Wednesday. The White Horse fire remains at 330 acres in the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primitive Area, while the Schley Creek fire is at 65 acres and the Molman fire east of Ronan has burned 88 acres.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.