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Citing lingering drought, high fire danger and continued occurrences of human-caused fires across Montana, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has extended the legal wildfire season into October.

DNRC director Mary Sexton and Bob Harrington, the department’s forestry division administrator, signed a proclamation Wednesday morning extending the fire season indefinitely.

The resolution allows continued wildfire restrictions on classified forest lands and requires burning permits be obtained from a recognized fire protection agency for all open burning. The extension goes into effect at midnight Monday, Oct. 1.

“The fire danger has actually worsened from last week,” Sexton said in a DNRC statement. “We’re responding to new human-caused wildfires and we still have some larger fires, such as Sawtooth, Condon Mountain and the Millie fire, which are going to be with us until winter.”

The DNRC provides fire protection in much of western Montana and fire suppression assistance to counties throughout the state.

Firefighters responded to numerous fire starts over the weekend. Many of them were human-caused, the DNRC said, including the Wilson fire southeast of Roundup and the Eagle Creek fire southwest of Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Together they’ve charred more than 7,100 acres.

Harrington said the end of the fire season is up to the weather.

“For much of Montana, it’s going to take substantial rain or snow before we can safely allow people to conduct open burning or build campfires in undesignated areas,” he said.

The statement encouraged the public to continue complying with local fire restrictions and to take extreme caution with off-road vehicle use, field use of cutting torches or welding equipment, campfires, or any other activities that could potentially start a wildfire.

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Air quality in the Missoula Valley improved to good to moderate Wednesday, according to the Missoula City-County Health Department’s Ben Schmidt. The cumulative exposure remained unhealthy for sensitive groups, however.

Schmidt warned in an email that a high-pressure ridge would keep wildfire smoke in the Missoula area Thursday.

Conditions deteriorated going south into the Bitterroot Valley, Schmidt said. Cumulative air quality there remained unhealthy. Smoky conditions will continue to persist, he said.

On the Sawtooth fire west of Hamilton on Wednesday, firefighters used heavy helicopters to drop water on remote sections of the fire burning along Sawtooth Canyon’s south ridge.

Operations continue under a blanket of dense smoke from numerous fires burning in Idaho. The air quality in downtown Hamilton on Wednesday was unhealthy for people with compromised lungs, heart or immune systems.

Fire information officers said a warming trend is expected through the weekend, and that smoldering and creeping of the fire is expected – with open surface fire on the west flank on Sawtooth Creek and in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

The fire has burned 5,962 acres and is 45 percent contained. Forty nine people are assigned to the Sawtooth fire camp at the present time.

Fire activity remains stable on the Elbow Pass Complex southwest of Augusta, according to information officer Wendy Clark. It is burning in the Green Fork, Ellis Creek, South Fork Sun River and Rapid Creek drainages.

The complex’s total estimated acreage is 25,572 acres, with 17,207 acres burning on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, 7,197 acres on the Flathead National Forest and 1,168 acres on the Lolo National Forest in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses. No moisture is forecast in the area for the next week, Clark said in an email.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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