What a difference a border makes.

While Montana firefighters were scrambling to extinguish fires on this side of the Bitterroot Mountains, their colleagues in Idaho were lighting up. The results showed up in a huge column of smoke on Missoula's western horizon Wednesday evening and a persistent haze there much of Thursday.

But it's all under control, or at least non-threatening, according to Clearwater National Forest spokeswoman Elayne Murphy.

"It's very common for us to ignite at this time of year, but there's usually a lot of smoke in the air so nobody notices," Murphy said Thursday. "The Clearwater tends to be a wetter forest type. So when everybody else is putting out fires or bracing for fires, this is the only time we can get the type of the burn we need. We have to ignite in August or early September."

The smoke Missoulians saw on Wednesday and Thursday came from several different fires. The prescribed burns were concentrated around Hoodoo Pass between Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 12 on the Idaho side of the mountains. The low-intensity burns were planned to clear out about 1,000 acres of dead lodgepole and subalpine fir stands and improve wildlife habitat in the Pollock Ridge area. The Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation funded part of the work.

Another lightning-caused fire along Heather Creek also made a big run, growing from 700 acres to more than 1,100 in an afternoon. But the fire is burning in wilderness forest far from developed areas, and is being monitored only, Murphy said. It started July 30. Three other small fires are burning in the same area, ranging in size from a half-acre to 17 acres.

On the Montana side, the Alder fire 12 miles southeast of Stevensville now has a crew of 142 firefighters backed up by three helicopters and a single-engine air tanker. Lolo National Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig said the aircraft were busy Thursday soaking hot spots in preparation for forecast high winds later in the afternoon and evening. The fire has burned about 615 acres and is 10 percent contained.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.


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