TARKIO — The Sunrise fire to the west of here dropped one position, to third, on the national priority list of wildfires Tuesday but that did nothing to quell the urgency.
Infrared mapping showed a gain of 1,000 acres, to 2,350, after a windy Monday on the fire 11 miles south of Superior, to the south of the Clark Fork River and Interstate 90.
No evacuations have been ordered, but the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office has put homes on all sides on get-ready status.
Incident commander Shawn Pearson of the Northern Rockies Type II Incident Management Team pulled firefighters off Sunrise Mountain after the horseshoe-shaped fire jumped a fire line on the north side Monday and spotted behind them. All reached safety, including some at a helispot inside the fire’s perimeter, and a bulldozer left behind emerged undamaged.
No injuries have been reported on the fire and, while some 50 structures are threatened, none has burned.
Winds calmed Tuesday but the humidity was high and temperatures were hotter. The fire is now expected to come down the mountainside into Quartz Creek, where a dozen or so homes have been readied for the assault.
“We’re running 24-hour shifts, and the plan is to burn out around those structures and turn on sprinklers and have engines down there,” said information officer Jill Cobb. “They’ve done as much as they can to take a stand when fire comes to that area, so we’re not going to leave our guys in there.”
Lightning lit the fire on July 16 in the Meadow Creek drainage, and it “spread kind of like a big amoeba” over adjacent ridges, she said.
On the north side of the horseshoe, the fire was within three-quarters of a mile above several homes on Sunrise Creek, where crews buttoned up home protection measures and turned their sights on Quartz Flats to the north. The small community of Rivulet to the east along the river and Verde Creek to the northwest are next in line for sprinklers, hoses and other structure protection.
Cobb said attention has turned from trying to stop the fire on Sunrise Mountain to building a new line of defense one ridge over, between Sunrise and Verde creeks.
A five-piece “heavy equipment task force” arrived Tuesday to begin working on the new line on the ridge. A relatively new concept in the Northern Rockies region, the task force consists of a feller buncher, a lowboy, a skidge, a Type II dozer and a rubber-tired skidder.
“We’re making plans and trying our best to control the fire where we can, but right now our options are really limited,” Cobb said.
She watched with others after dark Monday from the camp on Tarkio Flats to the east as the fire burned. It’s speculated that many more acres would show up as casualties after the next infrared flight, Cobb said.
Access to the fire has been a challenge, as has the heavy fuel of subalpine fir at the top of the mountain. It took 90 minutes to get equipment up to the fire on Sunrise, Pearson said. The drainages in the area are generally box canyons, with only one way in and out.
“We didn’t have any roads to choose from,” Cobb said. “Mother Nature gave us this fire in a terrible location. We did everything we could to confine it to one little spot, but it broke out of our fire line. Now that game has changed a bit. We’re going to have the fire come to us.”
A public meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Lozeau Lodge, off Exit 55 on Interstate 90.
Tuesday’s incident management situation report from the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise moved the Buffalo fire in southeast Montana up to its second priority, ahead of Sunrise and smaller companion Burdette, burning 11 miles away in the Fish Creek drainage. The Buffalo has burned 2,000 acres after starting on private land in timber, brush and grass, and was exhibiting “extreme fire behavior with crowning, running and short-range spotting,” the report said. “Structures threatened. Road and area closures in effect.”
The Burdette fire 13 miles southeast of Tarkio has expanded to 540 acres and has a Type II incident command team assigned as of Tuesday. It has a team of 52 assigned, and mainly burns in an inventoried roadless area.
Still at the top of the national priority list is the Lodgepole Complex burning between the Missouri River and Jordan in eastern Montana. It had grown to 250,000 acres by Tuesday, with 26 structures lost and 611 personnel fighting the fire.
A new smoke column that appeared on Missoula’s northern horizon Tuesday afternoon marked the expansion of a fire on the Flathead Indian Reservation that had been burning since July 15.
“The Liberty fire and the South Fork fire burned together two days ago and together went from 15 acres to 77 acres,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal fire prevention specialist C.T. Camel said Tuesday. “The helicopter measured it at 143 acres yesterday. Today there’s a column, so it’s probably over 200 acres now.”
The fire is burning in the South Fork Primitive Area north of the Rattlesnake Wilderness near the Jocko Road, but is not threatening the road or other facilities, Camel said. A team of 40 firefighters is on scene, with more personnel headed there on Tuesday.
A public meeting on the Lolo Peak fire 10 miles southwest of Lolo was scheduled for Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. in the Stevensville High School, 300 Park Ave. An aerial firing operation using helicopters to drop plastic balls of napalm on Monday burned out fuels on the southeast corner of the 1,090-acre fire near the Bitterroot Divide.
That helped reduce the fire’s intensity in a particularly steep terrain. Heavy burning also took place in the Falls Creek area with some spotting across to Lantern Ridge. The 211-person team will build hand line from Mill Creek on Highway 12 toward the Percell Ranch area, while a Hotshot crew will start working along the Mormon Peak Road.
Both the Sunrise and Lolo Peak fires continued to affect air quality in Missoula and Frenchtown. While the air quality remained good to moderate Tuesday, smoke from those fires could settle in the valleys overnight into Wednesday, according to the Missoula City-County Health Department.
Florence, Lolo, Rock Creek, Frenchtown and possibly Missoula may see smoke at unhealthy for sensitive groups or at unhealthy levels, meaning that people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors.
The Rice Ridge fire six miles north of Seeley Lake was reported at 20 acres on Tuesday, with a 20-person crew en route to confront it. Helicopters and retardant bombers attempted to slow down the fire growth Tuesday. The nearby Monahan fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex has grown to 584 acres, but is in monitor status with a crew of five lookouts on scene.
The Sapphire Complex now includes the Goat Creek, Sliderock and Little Hogback fires all burning in the Rock Creek area 27 miles east of Missoula. The combined fires have burned about 5,464 acres and have a crew of 287 personnel assigned.
Mandatory evacuations for the Brewster Creek Road residences affected by the Goat Creek fire were lifted Tuesday evening by the Granite County Sheriff's Office. All residences in Brewster Creek and on Rock Creek Road between mile markers 5-13 are now under pre-evacuation warnings (yellow area).
Mandatory evacuations (red area) remain for the cabin sites on Sliderock Mountain.