A growing wildfire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness has thrown a wrench into the peak floating season on the South Fork of the Flathead River.
Spotted Bear District Ranger Scott Snelson said a dozen or more groups of floaters have been either escorted downriver through the fire area or reassigned other exits over the past few days. Trail and river closure notices are posted at all trailheads in the area, as well as at the river above the gorge.
“We think we’ve gotten the last party through, so I think we’re done with that part,” Snelson said.
The six-day-old Snow Creek fire a few miles downstream from Big Salmon Lake had grown to more than 1,500 acres by Thursday morning, with some growth, “but not rapid growth,” expected later Thursday, Snelson said.
Hiking and floating traffic were formally shut down Wednesday. The closures affected seven area trails in their entirety and parts of four others, including both main trails along the South Fork.
An increase in fire activity on Wednesday prompted burnout operations at the Black Bear administrative site, and another was planned for Thursday afternoon.
“Not a ton of extra burning,” said Snelson. “We try to let these fires have their space, but when there’s opportunity to reduce the danger to our firefighters we’ll take it.”
Administrative cabins, a barn, corral and a stock bridge at Black Bear are at risk, as are two stock bridges at Salmon Forks. All have been fire-wrapped, as has the Mud Lake Lookout to the southeast. Snelson said if the fire grows in that direction the historic Big Prairie Ranger Station 15 miles to the south would be wrapped as well.
Suppression is not the goal in a wilderness fire as it is in new starts and the handful of others burning in Montana.
“Kind of the good thing that’s happened over the years is we’ve managed fire in the Bob Marshall Complex for 2½ decades to try to let fire play its natural role in that area,” Snelson said. “It means this particular fire is likely to burn into previous fires and start to slow up. We’ve got a mosaic of fires in the complex.”
The Snow Creek fire was about to enter a 1994 fire in the Helen Creek area on the east side of the South Fork.
The fire hadn't established in the area burned by both the 2000 Helen Creek fire and the 2013 Damnation fire. While it was burning the heavy dead and down fuels in the 2000 burn area and along the grassy slope west of the 2013 fire, it hasn’t spread into the twice-burned area despite hot, dry conditions and significant growth elsewhere.
“We’re grateful to our predecessors that they allowed fire to play its role,” Snelson said.
Firefighters responded Thursday afternoon to a fast-moving grass fire in the upper Bitterroot Valley between Conner and Sula.
At 3:40 p.m., the Lawrence Gulch fire was roughly 15 acres in size. No structures were immediately threatened, but several homes were located west of the fire near Highway 93.
Four helicopters were making water bucket drops to slow the fire’s spread, and four single-engine air tankers were dropping fire retardant. A heavy air tanker was ordered for retardant drop. Two engines and 25 firefighters from the Bitterroot National Forest were on scene, as winds picked up and a thunderstorm moved through.
The Beeskove fire in the Rattlesnake drainage had grown to 429 acres by Thursday morning, as crews anticipated a storm with 30- to 40-mph winds later in the day. Rains were forecast for Friday and Saturday.
Fire growth has primarily been uphill, spotting to the south toward Wisherd Ridge. Heavy equipment continued to improve fuel breaks on The Nature Conservancy lands in the Gold and Twin Creek areas, as well as along a power line corridor and into Johnson Creek north of Bonner.
Joe Sampson’s Type 2 Incident Management Team assumed management of the Beeskove fire on Wednesday night.