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Wildfire roundup: Fires ignite across western Montana amid sweltering temps

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ELMO — Near-hundred-degree temperatures and wind gusts of 25 mph energized the Elmo 2 fire on Monday, forcing evacuations along Black Lake Road near Lake Mary Ronan and threatening Flathead Lake's Dayton Bay.

As many as 19 new wildfires ignited across western Montana over the weekend, from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, as temperatures into the triple-digits baked the landscape. Two small fires sparked in the Missoula Valley, but both were suppressed Sunday evening.

Most of the fires were small and quickly brought under control. In contrast, Elmo 2 fire started Monday at almost 13,000 acres on the west side of Flathead Lake, before taking a major run Monday afternoon. And existing fires in the region continued to grow. 

A red-flag warning indicating extreme fire conditions was in place for Monday. Also on Monday, the Bitterroot National Forest raised its fire danger to extreme, the highest of five levels. Fire danger is very high — the second-highest level — on the Lolo National Forest. Fire danger is extreme on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. 

Elmo 2 fire

The Elmo 2 fire was 12,975 acres and 0% contained on Monday morning. Burning was most active on its east side near Dayton, as well as around Cromwell Creek, on the northwest side of the blaze. Tuesday's weather was expected to be problematic, with 12-15% humidity and 18 mph sustained winds.

As of Monday afternoon, the fire raised a full pyrocumulus column of smoke and evacuation orders were put into effect along Black Lake Road. A quartet of water-scooping planes flew suppression runs in tight formation Monday afternoon, collecting water loads from Big Arm Bay. 

A community meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Elmo Pow Wow Grounds. Northern Rockies Team 7, a Type-2 incident management team, took control of the fire at 6 a.m. Sunday. 

The fire ignited Friday afternoon along Montana Highway 28, about 7 miles west of where Highway 28 hits U.S. Highway 93 in Elmo. The fire started in grass but grew rapidly and spread into timber to the northeast, burning northwest of Elmo and Big Arm Bay. An InciWeb page for the fire lists the fire start at "approximately" 4 p.m.; Missoula Interagency Dispatch shows crews were dispatched at 7:05 p.m. 

The fire cause remains under investigation, according to InciWeb. An interactive wildland fire map maintained by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lists the cause as human. 

The fast-changing situation forced multiple closures followed by tentative re-openings. Highway 28 was closed after the fire started but was reopened by Monday. Big Arm State Park was also closed but reopened Sunday. A boat ramp and fishing access site in Elmo remained closed Monday. Lake Mary Ronan State Park is closed. An evacuation order for Chief Cliff Estates was lifted, but residents south of Lake Mary Ronan Road and west of Highway 93 remain under pre-evacuation notice. Montana Red Cross opened a shelter at Linderman School in Polson.

On Monday, 293 personnel were working the fire, including five hand crews, eight engine crews and two helicopters. Single-engine air tankers also aided firefighting efforts over the weekend. A variety of federal, tribal and local firefighters responded to the fire. 

Temperatures near 100 with wind gusts up to 25 mph were expected to aggravate fire activity Monday and Tuesday. 

Missoula area fire starts

Crews were dispatched at 3:47 p.m. Sunday to a small wildfire along Neil Drive, just south of U.S. Highway 12 about 6 miles west of Lolo. According to a news release from the Missoula Rural Fire District, the person who reported the fire said they heard "a loud 'pop' and looked outside to see a power line down with smoke and flames nearby." The district did not say whether the power line was the cause of the fire; the cause is "currently undetermined." 

Crews arrived on scene to find a wind-driven fire "threatening multiple homes." Montana Rural firefighters began structure protection efforts and were joined by U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation wildland firefighters. The fire burned about 10 acres before being controlled Sunday evening. Crews were patrolling the area Monday.

The Missoula Rural, USFS and DNRC crews were aided by personnel from Florence Fire, Missoula County Sheriff's Office, Bureau of Land Management law enforcement, Missoula Emergency Services Inc. and Montana Electrical co-op. In total, 10 engines and three helicopters responded to the fire. 

Around the same time, firefighters also responded to a 4:02 p.m. report of a wildfire near an electrical substation just north of the Duncan Drive Trailhead on the west side of Rattlesnake Creek, about 2.8 miles north of downtown Missoula. The fire was caused by a downed power line, according to the Lolo National Forest. Crews from the forest, DNRC and the Missoula Fire Department arrived on scene to find a fire smaller than 1 acre exhibiting mild fire behavior with creeping and smoldering through grass and timber. The fire was fully contained by Monday, with crews continuing to mop up and patrol the area. 

At 11:07 a.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start just northeast of the Rock Creek exit on Interstate 90. The 0.1-acre fire was controlled by 2:14 p.m. 

At 3:15 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start along U.S. Highway 93 near Evaro, about 5.8 miles northeast of Wye. The 0.2-acre fire was controlled by 4:26 p.m. 

At 7:23 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start on a hillside north of I-90 in Ravenna, between Ryan Creek and Marcella Creek, about 24 miles southeast of Missoula. The 0.5-acre fire was controlled by 11:07 p.m. 

At 7:37 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start between East Mullan Road and I-90 in Clinton, about 1.4 miles south of the Clinton exit. The 0.1-acre fire was extinguished by Monday. 

Moose fire

The Moose fire near North Fork, Idaho, grew to 56,049 acres and was 23% contained by Monday morning, up from 43,226 acres and 15% contained Friday morning. Containment on Monday morning was exclusively along the north and northeast side of the fire — the only directions in which the fire is not significantly growing — between Shoup and Bobcat Gulch.

The Salmon-Challis National Forest announced Saturday that the fire was human-caused, but the forest didn't release a specific cause. Residents around North Fork have maintained since the fire started that it was caused by an unattended campfire near the confluence of Moose Creek and the Salmon River, downstream from North Fork. 

At its current size, the Moose fire is the largest active fire in the Lower 48 states and slightly larger than the explosive McKinney fire in Northern California on Monday morning. The Moose fire is so far the second-largest fire in the Lower 48 this year, behind the 341,735-acre Hermits Peak fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico, which started May 6 and is now 96% contained with almost no fire. 

Great Basin Team 2 — a Type-1 incident management team, the largest and most robust configuration of the interagency teams assigned to oversee wildfire response — took command of the incident at 6 a.m. July 20. Great Basin Team 1, another Type-1 team, is set to take command of the fire Wednesday. 

The fire is burning in the Salmon-Challis National Forest near North Fork, just west of Highway 93 between Salmon, Idaho, and Lost Trail Pass on the Montana-Idaho line. The blaze ignited mid-afternoon on July 17 and rapidly grew amid high winds and red-flag conditions over the following week. Red-flag conditions over the weekend caused extreme fire behavior. The fire is expanding on three fronts — to the west, south and east — driven by chaotic wind patterns through river canyons, up and down slopes, and over ridge tops. Outflow winds and dry lighting from afternoon thunderstorms Friday and through the weekend fed into extreme fire behavior, and similar weather could increase activity Monday.

A virtual meeting to discuss the fire's threat to Salmon's municipal watershed was scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday. The meeting can be accessed on the Salmon-Challis National Forest Facebook page and on Microsoft Teams (https://bit.ly/3Buhn5k). 

Residents along the Highway 93 corridor between Tower Creek and North Fork remain under an evacuation order. Residents along Salmon River Road between Squaw Creek and Pine Creek, and residents along Highway 93 from Carmen to Tower Creek, are advised to be set to evacuate. The Salmon River Road is partially closed, with only residents, rafting outfitters and river users with float permits allowed through behind a pilot car. 

On Monday, 960 personnel were working the Moose fire, including 19 hand crews and 60 engine crews, aided by nine helicopters. Large air tankers made fire retardant drops over the weekend. 

Hog Trough fire

The lightning-caused Hog Trough fire about 18 miles southeast of Hamilton was up to 731 acres and 9% contained on Monday morning, up from 611 acres and 9% contained by Friday morning. Skalkaho Highway remains open. On Monday, 219 personnel were assigned to the fire, including seven hand crews and three engines, aided by seven helicopters.

Bitterroot area fire starts

Crews were dispatched to the lightning-caused Chrandal Creek fire at 1:28 p.m. Friday. The fire is about 1.5 acres and "burning in remote and rugged terrain, in heavy fuels (timber) with dead standing and downed timber," according to the Bitterroot National Forest. Aircraft are monitoring fire spread. The fire is located at about 6,800 feet elevation near the Montana-Idaho state line, about 10 miles southeast of Painted Rocks Lake and 31.5 miles south of Darby. The fire is about 12 miles northwest of the Moose fire. 

Kalispell area fire starts

At 4:20 p.m. Friday, crews were dispatched to a fire start on Eagle Mountain, one ridge west of Blacktail Mountain Ski Area about 13 miles southwest of Kalispell. The 1.5-acre fire was contained by Saturday morning. 

At 6:11 p.m. Friday, crews were dispatched to a 0.1-acre fire start on Flattop Mountain in Glacier National Park. 

At 1:55 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start along Highway 93 southeast of Olney, about 11.7 miles northwest of Whitefish. The 0.1-acre fire was controlled by 3:47 p.m. 

At 3:56 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start just west of Farm to Market Road near Big Lost Creek, about 6.5 miles northwest of downtown Kalispell. The 1-acre fire was controlled by 5:06 p.m. 

At 6:27 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start along Bigfork Stage Road about 1.66 miles north of downtown Bigfork. The 0.1-acre fire was controlled by 8:13 p.m. 

At 6:32 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start along Bigfork Stage Road about 4,800 feet north of downtown Bigfork. The 0.1-acre fire was controlled by 8:35 p.m. 

At 8:55 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a fire start along River Road and near Woods Rose Lane on the east side of the Clark Fork River between Plains and Paradise, about 2 miles southeast of Plains. The 0.64-acre fire was controlled by 9:50 p.m. 

Kootenai area fire starts

At 4:05 p.m. Saturday, crews were dispatched to a fire start near Camp Creek and Weasel Creek in the Whitefish Mountains on the Kootenai National Forest about 1.65 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. The Weasel fire is at least 250 acres, according to Kootenai Interagency Dispatch, and burning in timber. The forest stated on Facebook Sunday that Grave Creek Road is closed from Foundation Creek Trailhead north to the end of the road at Big Therriault Lake. Big and Little Therriault campgrounds are closed. 

At 11:23 a.m. Monday, crews were dispatched to a fire start on the north ridge of Minton Peak on the south side of Nixon Reservoir, about 26 miles northwest of Thompson Falls. The 0.1-acre fire was fully contained by Monday morning. 

Dillon area fire starts

At 2:42 p.m. Saturday, crews were dispatched to a fire start in Cabbage Gulch about 4.7 miles south of Anaconda. The 0.39-acre fire was controlled by 4:39 pm. 

Helena area fire starts

At 12:32 p.m. Sunday, crews were dispatched to a 0.1-acre fire start near Marks Lumber in Clancy, about 7.6 miles southeast of Helena.

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Outdoors Reporter

Joshua Murdock covers the outdoors and natural resources for the Missoulian.

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