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Chrandal Creek fire

Firefighters clear a line of fuels recently as they work on the Chrandal Creek fire south of Darby. The fire is burning in pine beetle-infested forest, making it hard for crews to stop the blaze. It was 40 percent contained as of Sunday.

Several new fires were spotted this weekend in western Montana – including a troublesome one in the Seeley Lake Ranger District – and fire officials anticipate weather Monday will fan the flames of some already active burns.

“We’re getting a weather system that’s coming in (Monday), and that’s going to bring strong winds,” said Boyd Hartwig, Lolo National Forest information officer. “So firefighters are working hard to try to get these fires contained in preparation for that cold front.”

Around mid-afternoon Saturday, a smoke report came in for an area one mile northeast of Dunham Point in the Seeley Lake Ranger District, Hartwig said. The Dunham fire is well into the forest and isn’t near any structures or homes, but the blaze is active.

“It’s steep terrain, heavy timber and it’s sort of been resisting our control efforts so far,” Hartwig said late Sunday afternoon.

The fire appears to be more than one acre in size, although the area has been difficult to determine, he said. According to the U.S. Forest Service, a Type 2 crew, typically 20 people, was on the scene. Also, two loads of smokejumpers, or an estimated 15 people, worked on the fire Saturday night, but they weren’t able to get a containment line around it.

“They’ve asked for a retardant drop on that fire, and so dispatch is working on filling that and getting a tanker up there to drop retardant,” Hartwig said.

Firefighters also are working on two other new fires in the Lolo National Forest. Feather Gulch is in the Ambrose Saddle area east of Stevensville, and it is one-tenth of an acre, “so pretty small,” and it isn’t threatening any structures.

“We’ve had many fires in that area over the last few years, typically lightning strikes,” Hartwig said.

The Ambrose Saddle Area is around the border of the Bitterroot and Lolo forests, and late Sunday afternoon, three Helitack crew members were dispatched to it, according to the information officer.

Another small fire – unnamed so far – was burning in the north fork of Howard Creek on the boundary of the Nine Mile Ranger District and the Missoula Ranger District, Hartwig said. He estimated that burn was one acre.

“We’ve got one engine on it and one helicopter dropping water, and so hopefully we’ll get that buttoned up here pretty quickly,” Hartwig said.

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South of Darby in a remote area, the Chrandal Creek fire held steady Sunday at 2,200 acres and 40 percent containment, said fire information officer Jill Cobb.

The weather Saturday proved to be hotter and drier than anticipated, she said. That led to increased fire activity, but the good news was the blaze burned back on itself, too.

At one point, the U.S. Forest Service pulled firefighters off the line so their egress was not compromised, Cobb said. But she said no one was injured, and the fire has been fought safely so far.

“The only thing we’ve had going is it’s been so wet that sometimes the guys have been getting blisters on their feet because of wet boots,” she said.

Sunday, gusty winds swept through the fire, although the blasts weren’t as strong as expected, according to fire officials. The humidity “dropped a considerable amount,” and Cobb said she anticipates similar weather Monday. Spokesman Greg DeNitto added that Monday’s weather also could bring a slight chance of dry thunderstorms in the afternoon.

From Tuesday on, though, the forecast suggests drier air, no precipitation and steady westerly winds.

Those elements plus the fact the fire is burning in pine beetle-infested forest make the blaze a challenge to tamp down, according to fire officials. Cobb said the dead trees are like kiln-dried timber – fuel that’s ready to burn and dangerous to fight.

“There’s still strong potential for erratic fire behavior, and mostly, it’s because we’re seeing active fire where and when you would not expect to see it in a healthy forest,” Cobb said.

Near Garrison, the Wet Cottonwood fire hadn’t grown in size Sunday, said Cindy Super, fire information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. It remained at an estimated 40 acres.

“They’ve been working on putting the rest of the hemline around it,” Super said of firefighters.

In a voicemail, she said she did not have an estimate of containment because it’s been difficult to calculate given the fire is burning in heavy fuels.

Another fire that broke out in the area was quickly knocked down, Super said, as were a couple others: “Things are just plugging along.”

According to Hartwig, with the Lolo National Forest, the Hayes Creek fire is out and the Twin Lakes fire appears to be under control.

“They’re looking pretty good,” Hartwig said Sunday.

The Twin Lakes fire, 2.5 acres and burning one mile north of Stuart Peak in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, continues to spot. He said firefighters are working to contain and control the spot fires, and in the interior of the fire, there’s smoke but not flames.

“(And) the perimeter is cold, so that’s good. They’ve got a pretty good line around it,” Hartwig said.

The Hayes Creek fire, roughly three miles west of the main Blue Mountain trailhead, was reported Saturday and contained around 11 p.m. the same day. According to Hartwig, a helicopter water drop was successful “in keeping the fire from spreading significantly.”

The last big fire season for the Lolo National Forest was in 2007, and this year, there’s more moisture in the mountains, he said. But Hartwig also said it’s far too early to make a prediction for fire activity in August, and he shared a truism for forecasting fire seasons.

“We’ll tell you what the fire season is going to be like in October,” Hartwig said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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