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Western Montana wildfires

Sunday's satellite picture shows a mixture of smoke and clouds. It's mostly smoke in Missoula County and just to the west in Idaho, but large cloud banks to the east and west obscured the smoke.

With big-game archery season opening Saturday but wildland fire season still hanging on, Montana and Idaho hunters are scrambling to find places where it’s safe to scout in the woods.

“There are still some places open and available – we’ve got no current closures at all,” said Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay. “But all around us, it’s been a really unprecedented fire year. You can travel more than 50 miles down the Magruder Corridor, but once you hit the border (with Idaho) you run into a barricade. Going toward Elk City, that forest is closed completely.”

The entire Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in Idaho remains closed to recreation while the flames continue to roll.

Most of the main entrances to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex have fire closures in effect, and Plum Creek Timber Co. and F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. have imposed Stage II fire restrictions that prohibit off-road travel or campfires on their property, while Stimson Lumber Co. has closed its lands to public access until the risk subsides.

“Landowners are concerned about the stray cigarette butt or dragging an axle on a rock or leaving a campfire - it just takes one spark,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hunting access coordinator Kendra McKosky in Missoula. “They’ve got their whole livelihood wrapped up in a piece of property. So I hope everybody kind of knows it’s going to be a little delayed this year.”

Challenges range from active fires that have closed access to places like the Keep Cool Hills and Sucker Creek drainages near Lincoln, to the overall drought that prompted the Stitt Ranch by Helmville to restrict block management access until things moisten up.

Both the private and public portions of the extensive Blackfoot Block Management Area around Ovando are closed until more rain comes. That includes the University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest and the timberlands now owned by the Nature Conservancy.

The West Fork Fish Creek fire has blocked access to most of the Fish Creek State Park and Wildlife Management Area, along with many entrances to the Great Burn proposed wilderness.

Each FWP region has a web page with a “Hunting Access” tab listing the status of block management areas. McKosky said those pages would be updated daily as fire conditions moderate to let hunters know where it’s OK to scout.

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The closures and restrictions may also affect firewood gathering on public lands.

Stage II fire restrictions on the Bitterroot, Lolo, Kootenai, Flathead, and Lewis and Clark national forests prohibit the use of internal combustion engines (such as chainsaws) between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m., and require anyone who gets their machine work done in the morning to patrol the worksite for at least an hour to catch any embers or sparks.

Upland game bird season opened for grouse, partridge and turkey on Tuesday, and archery seasons for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, black bears and mountain lions begin on Saturday.

Rifle season for most big-game species doesn’t begin until October 24, but many hunters like to get into the woods early to scout, target-shoot or work on physical conditioning.

A forecast widespread weather change late this week may not bring the needed conditions to reopen all the closures, according to U.S. Forest Service Region 1 spokesman David Smith.

“The winds we’re expecting today could be bad, but the moisture that’s projected to come into the area later this week could help,” Smith said on Wednesday. “Some fires have taken off on us in a very quick way, and you don’t want to be out there when that happens.”

Even after a “season-ending event” with enough rain or snow to snuff the flames, forest-fire areas might remain closed for other hazards.

In particular, charred hillsides could be vulnerable to erosion and landslides that block roads, and fire-weakened tree roots are likely to topple without warning in even light winds.

“Closing areas is not a place we want to be, and as soon as it’s safe to do so, they will be reopened,” Smith said. “It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. You have to stick with each national forest or ranger district website or Facebook page to see what arrives and when.”

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