It’s September and the state’s in a state of disaster.
Even as major mountain wildfires continued burning and spreading, more than 65 new ones broke out Wednesday and Thursday in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, most of them in Montana.
Dry conditions that have plagued the state for more than two months are expected to continue into the weekend, along with high winds that have driven some existing fires wild.
It all prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to call in the National Guard late Friday afternoon and declare a state of disaster.
“As we enter the unofficial last weekend of summer, Montana continues to face serious fire conditions,” Bullock said in the announcement. “Over the coming days, additional National Guard resources will be mobilized to continue to support the men and women fighting these fires.”
He added the top priorities remain firefighter safety and “protecting Montanans and their property.”
Two firefighters have already lost their lives to falling snags, one on the Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake and the other on the Lolo Peak fire.
Tragedy struck in California Thursday when a fire battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service was killed in a traffic accident while returning home from fighting a wildfire near Yosemite National Park. The victim was identified as 47-year-old Gary Helming, a 22-year Forest Service veteran based in Santa Maria.
According to the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, 14 new “large incidents” have started in recent days across the region.
The biggest is in drought-stricken southeast Montana. The Sartin Draw Fire 20 miles northeast of Ashland along the Tongue River was reported early Wednesday morning and was up to 80,000 acres by Friday.
Ten large fires are burning on the Lolo National Forest alone, with more than 2,500 men and women fighting them. Tim Garcia, Lolo forest supervisor, told a meeting in Seeley Lake on Thursday that represents nearly a fifth of the firefighting force in the nation.
More are heading to the Plains/Thompson Falls ranger district, the one area of the Lolo forest that had been spared of large fires for the most part. A swath of lightning strikes through the district sparked a growing number of starts.
“The reason why it’s so dynamic is those lightning strikes are just starting to smoke,” said Pat York, public information officer for the Lolo forest.
“They’re putting a lot of resources on it, so they’re keeping them small for the most part, with an exception of a couple.”
The Sheep Gap fire was the first and is the largest of 14 active fires in the district. It was discovered Tuesday evening nine miles west of Plains and south of the Clark Fork River, and was up to 1,637 acres Friday evening.
The Deep Creek fire near Cougar Peak and Blue Slide Road northwest of Thompson Falls started Wednesday. It’s around 300 acres.
York said firefighters and machinery from other, less dynamic fires such as Sunrise in the Superior area, are being borrowed to fight the Sanders County fires, and more resources from out of state are reportedly on their way.
“There’s more coming in (Friday) for initial attacks,” she said. “I know there’s many more resources requested than what are being filled right now. That’s the situation all over the Northwest.”
There’s a dabbling of good news elsewhere in western Montana.
In the Bitterroot, a mandatory evacuation order was lifted Friday for 65 homes near the Nelson Creek fire southwest of Darby. Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said residents along Nez Perce Road who were evacuated Tuesday could return home under a warning status.
The fire that was discovered Monday by the Bare Cone Lookout was up to 260 acres Friday. It has drawn the attention of 125 firefighters. Holton’s announcement detailed the area southwest of Darby of Nez Perce Road, Lapwai and West Lapwai lanes, Fox and West Fox lanes and Bear Hollow Court.
He gave credit to the “great work by the Bitterroot National Forest and West Fork Ranger District firefighters and Type 3 team.”
It’s on wooded slopes north of Nez Perce Road, which splits with the West Fork Road 1½ miles to the east.
Nez Perce Road, which had been closed, is reopened so motorists can now access the Magruder Road Corridor between Darby and Elk City, Idaho.
Residents evacuated from the Cougar Creek and Quartz Creek areas due to the Sunrise fire in Mineral County began returning home Friday morning. The fire is approaching 26,000 acres but has seen minimal growth in recent days and is considered 90 percent contained, according to incident commander Rick Connell.
Crews will spend the next few days repairing damage caused during suppression activities. Heavy machinery is being used to re-contour and cover dozer lines with vegetation. As repair work progresses, area closures will be lifted.
Air quality Friday morning was a welcome "Good" in Superior and "Moderate" in Alberton.
Fifty-four personnel from the Montana Army National Guard were due to arrive Friday to help on the Lolo Peak fire. A post on several agency Facebook pages said the Guard will assist with security at roadblocks, presumably on the Bitterroot Valley side. Evacuation warnings were lifted Wednesday in the nine miles west of Lolo along Highway 12 and 5½ miles south of Lolo on U.S. Highway 93.
“If evacuations do occur it will be local law enforcement making notifications, not military personnel,” the post said.
The easternmost Lolo Creek stretch has been under mop-up and patrol status for a couple of days, and the northernmost Highway 93 will be put under patrol status Friday, further relieving tense homeowners and businesses in the Lolo area.
Firefighting attention is focused farther south in the One Horse Creek area near Florence. Midnight burnout operations Thursday night from One Horse Creek south to Bass Creek went “really well,” according to Mike Granger, special operations chief on the fire.
The idea, Granger said was to “continue bringing the fire off the mountain” to established fire lines.
That was one of four fires on the Lolo district that York said are testing their boundaries. The Liberty fire burning between Arlee and Placid Lake in the Mission Mountains is presenting challenges on the southeast side, though it’s not threatening structures.
The 31,000-acre Little Hogback fire, uppermost and largest of the three fires in the Rock Creek drainage that make up the Sapphire Complex, has a corner that’s “very difficult to manage,” York said. It’s in Sheep Gulch/Capron Creek area, more than 30 miles up the creek.
“At this point fire managers believe burnout operations in Capron Creek may be the only way to secure fire lines in that area,” the Friday morning InciWeb report said, “but gusty winds (Thursday) prevented those plans for a second day in a row.”
Three structures in the lower end of Capron Creek, near mile marker 33 on Rock Creek Road, remain in mandatory evacuation status. Meanwhile, Rock Creek Road has been opened from Interstate 90 to the Bitterroot Campground at mile marker 23.5.
Winds developed as expected Friday on the Rice Ridge fire, “and maybe just a little bit more strongly than expected coming out of the northwest,” information officer Mark Vosburgh said.
The good news: it cleared a lot of smoke out of the valley around Seeley Lake, which had been, once again, off the charts in the morning.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Vosburgh said at 5 p.m. “We’ve been suffering up here.”
There was spotting across the perimeter on the western edge just north of the town of Seeley Lake and roughly 1½ miles from Highway 83. But the winds and three Type I heavy helicopters kept it in check, Vosburgh said.
The fire jumped nearly 4,000 acres on Thursday to 37,032.
“The big area that we’re trying to get secured is that part just north of Cottonwood Lakes Road east of Seeley Lake,” said Vosburgh.
The fire is gobbling up fuel and backing down Mount Morrell toward Cottonwood Lakes, said an update from InciWeb, the national wildfire reporting service. It took a concerted effort by firefighters and heavy helicopters on Thursday to hold the fire above road, which leads to the populated Kozy Korner/Woodworth/Big Sky Lake area.
“It actually made it down to the road and had spotted on the south side,” Vosburgh said. The resulting burn was doused by helicopter attack at three-quarters of an acre.
Seeley Lake was getting an eyeful of a different fire to the west, to the north of the Liberty fire. The Black fire started on July 15 but only recently took off.
It was up to 230 acres on Friday. Sarah Coefield of the Missoula City-County Health Department said it will likely be sending smoke to Placid and Seeley lakes during the day and Arlee during the night.
Air quality throughout the region was much improved Friday, including at Seeley Lake. But at 10:30 a.m. it was “pooling so thick ... that our monitor can’t read it,” Coefield reported. Concentrations were “beyond what we know to be Hazardous,” Coefield said.
The monitor in Seeley doesn’t register concentrations above 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), which is why Seeley has seen so many readings at or near that threshold.
“We will hopefully have the monitor reprogrammed to see the higher concentrations next week,” Coefield wrote.
A community meeting for the Meyers fire was held Friday evening at the community clubhouse in Sula. The fire jumped from 25,342 acres to 28,914 on Thursday. It started in the upper Rock Creek region 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg but has crossed the Sapphire Mountain divide into Ravalli County and the East Fork Bitterroot drainage.
The major growth currently, however, is on the eastern edge south of Moose Lake, where the fire extended well beyond the primary containment line on Thursday. That caused a temporary closure of Moose Lake Road while officials re-assessed the threat to the Moose Lake community, which remains for the moment in pre-evacuation warning status.