The nettlesome, reinvigorated Condon Mountain fire continued to make noise Saturday, creeping ever southward through steep terrain and prompting the first area closure since it broke out nearly two months ago.
The Flathead National Forest banned the public from an area stretching almost to Holland Lake, some seven miles south of the active fire. The popular Holland Falls National Recreation Trail remains open.
“For the purpose of the order, it is prohibited to be on any National Forest System Trail, or within the boundaries of the Condon Mountain Fire area closure,” the notice said.
No structures are within a mile and a half of the fire’s new front, though residents in the area are on a “ready” stage 1 evacuation alert, according to public information officer Ted Pettis. Stage 2 is “set” and stage 3 is “go.”
The lightning-caused fire that sat quiet for weeks flared up Wednesday and grew by 1,000 acres in 24 hours on Thursday and Friday. Pettis said it added another 200 acres on Saturday, growing from 3,500 to 3,700 acres.
“We had pretty much an inversion all day today, which kind of kept a lid on it,” Pettis said.
But afternoon temperatures approaching 80, low humidity and light winds that fostered the spotting of flames on the steep slopes kept the growth potential high.
Pettis said lines are being constructed at the foot of the mountains on both sides of Cooney Creek as the fire topped the Smith Creek divide to the north and started working its way down the steep slope. Temporary crossings of Cooney Creek were installed to facilitate the work.
Back burns are anticipated when the fuel breaks are completed and conditions allow, perhaps by Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, fires to the south and west of Missoula did little damage Saturday, and western Montanans got promising news on the air quality front.
Though smoke rendered the air unhealthy for sensitive groups most of the day, an air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department said it may have looked worse than it was.
“Most of the smoke covering our region appears to be pretty far overhead and out of our immediate breathing space,” Sarah Coefield said in a daily air quality update.
Coefield added that the National Weather Service was “unusually optimistic that we may start to get some real changes in the weather patterns starting next week, so stay tuned for that.”
There’s a small chance of measurable precipitation in the region and temperatures are expected to drop back to the normal range, helping calm the wildfires raging in Idaho and Montana.
Crews fighting the massive Mustang Complex, burning in Idaho and extreme southwest Montana, enjoyed some relief from the smoke and another quiet day on the flame front .
“We’ve had minimal fire activity over the last few days,” said spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano. “It’s slowly creeping south and east into the wilderness but it’s not threatening anything.”
The fires that began July 30 have burned more than 332,000 acres and are 20 percent contained. On Friday, they burned around the Salmon Lookout tower but it wasn’t damaged, a release from the Salmon-Challis National Forest said.
On the Montana section, the wilderness fires combined with the Porcupine fire to the north and also hopped a road acting as a fire line in the Johnson Creek area, but the Boise Hostshots successfully flanked the flames and stopped their progression with support from a heavy helicopter.
Good news, too, came from the Sawtooth fire west of Hamilton as mop-up, patrol and monitoring of completed fire lines continued.
The Northern Rockies type 2 wildfire management team took over Friday evening and crews and equipment were reduced. As of Saturday morning, 131 firefighters and four helicopters remained on the fire.
What little activity there was entailed smoldering and creeping with isolated torching on the west side of the fire within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. That side will continue to be monitored, while crews on the east side patrol and attack isolated hot spots. Infrared technology was employed Saturday to detect the hot spots.
The Ward Mountain Trail was opened Saturday. Closures remained in effect on Sawtooth Creek, Roaring Lion and Canyon Creek trails.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.