Temperatures crept into the mid-90s on Monday, but the western Montana wildfire season remained quiet, even as several major fires continued burning from Northern California to Washington.
The National Weather Service is forecasting a series of strong storms later this week, capable of producing lightning, heavy rain and locally damaging winds.
The next two weeks could make or break the Montana fire season.
“This is crunch time for us,” said Tod McKay, spokesman for the Bitterroot National Forest. “In my five seasons here, this is the time we typically get our big fires.”
Over the weekend, initial attack crews doused three new starts on the Bitterroot Forest, which has seen 48 fires this year, including 31 caused by lightning.
The state’s largest fire continued burning north of Thompson Falls on the Lolo National Forest, where the Thompson River Complex has passed 780 acres.
A new fire was also reported up Rock Creek on the Lolo Forest, but was listed at just 15 acres Monday.
“It’s a lightning-started fire about two miles southwest of the Bitterroot Flat Campground,” said Lolo Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig. “We’re being pretty deliberate in how we approach it.”
Two hand crews were assigned to the West Alder fire Monday. Two helicopters were also working the blaze, conducting water drops on the fire’s leading edge.
Hartwig said the fire was burning in steep terrain. Fire managers planned to use the area’s natural barriers to help contain the fire.
“It’ll be part of our strategy in how we corral the fire,” said Hartwig. “But with these temperatures, we’re expecting some additional fire growth out there.”
North of Seeley Lake, crews were fighting the 10-acre Colt Lake fire on Monday.
Two helicopters, engines, heavy equipment, a hotshot crew and others were working the fire, which was started by lightning Sunday.
More than 275 personnel worked the Thompson River Complex on Monday afternoon, where a strong inversion held into the afternoon. Torching was reported on the Spruce fire and a spot fire was burning actively to the east.
But the Koo-Koo-Sint fire posed the greatest potential for trouble within the complex and the greatest risk to homes. Public information officer Jennifer Costich said crews are looking to stop the fire’s creep to the southeast.
“The eastern and southern edge has been more concerning,” said Costich. “They’ve got a line roughed in along the rocks on the eastern flank. They’ll see what the best options are for tying the fire off on the southeast corner.”
Costich said meteorologists on the fire are predicting a change in weather over the next few days, including possible erratic winds. The National Weather Service believes the storms could produce locally heavy rain.
“Much of the region should see some thunderstorms every day into Thursday,” said meteorologist Genki Kino. “It’s a pretty good system coming in, a little unusual for this early in August. It’s a strong system for this time of year.”
A cooling pattern is expected to move in by Thursday or Friday. McKay said the next few weeks could determine whether Montana’s fire season comes to life or peters out before it gets started.
“The storms we’ve had so far, we’ve been getting a shot of moisture with the lightning,” said McKay. “It’s been helping us, but I don’t think that’s the case up on the Lolo or over in Idaho.”
The Weather Service traced much of Monday’s haze in the Missoula Valley to a series of fires burning in central Idaho, including those on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.