While the Thompson fire in Glacier National Park kept the crown for biggest blaze in western Montana on Thursday, dozens of smaller fires along the Montana-Idaho border were to blame for Missoula's smoky skies.
Air quality remained between good and moderate throughout Missoula County, despite the haze.
But with the Soda fire in Idaho burning about 200,000 acres west of Boise and the Lawyer Complex fires burning another 2,000, lots of smoke was filling the valleys of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness just west of Hamilton.
In Montana, Glacier’s Thompson fire continued to inundate valley basins along the western side of the Continental Divide as its perimeter expanded to 14,900 acres.
"We had minimal activity today," Thompson fire spokesman Greg DeNitto said Thursday. "Most work done today was by helicopter, dropping on hot spots. Our main concern now is the predicted weather system due in tomorrow afternoon, with a potential for very high winds and potential for fire to spot across the Continental Divide. Then we’re into a different scenario."
Helicopters with water buckets were able to save the Upper Nyack patrol cabin as the fire burned around it Wednesday. Firefighters have placed protective wrap around the Lower Nyack patrol cabin and set up a sprinkler to defend it.
Trails in the Nyack and Coal creek drainages have been closed, as are several approaching trails from the Cut Bank, Two Medicine and Red Eagle valleys.
Closer to Missoula, a fire reported about 2 p.m. Thursday northwest of Philipsburg on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest had grown to 200 acres by 5 p.m.
Eight firefighters were on the scene at the fast-moving Scotchman's Gulch fire, and one hot spot was observed north of the main burn, according to spokesman David Early. The fire was burning in heavy timber and thick understory on steep terrain, and one load of retardant was dropped on it by an air tanker.
Additional tankers and personnel, including a Type 2 management team, have been ordered.
The Scotty Brown fire was reported at 60 percent containment after burning about 23 acres near Ovando. However, neither it nor the eight-acre Gold Creek fire has affected access to Blackfoot River fishing access sites or floating routes.
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokesman Jordan Koppen did ask floaters to be careful if they encounter helicopters trying to dip water from the river.
Helicopters have been particularly active around the Johnsrud Park area, which is a popular put-in for river users.
The most concerning fire of Thursday was a five- to six-acre start called the East Fork fire near Chamberlain Creek.
Koppen said it had very difficult access and lots of beetle-killed trees that could grow into a more serious problem without attention. Seven smokejumpers reached the area Thursday and are backed up by two helicopters and a single-engine air tanker.
DNRC crews are also working on the Apex Gulch fire, which is burning a half-acre near Anaconda, and the Sunflower fire, which has burned 27 acres in the Kenny’s Ridge area of the Gold Creek drainage.
Lolo National Forest officials used a large air tanker to make two drops on the five-acre Rock Creek fire 11 miles west of Missoula International Airport on Thursday. It has three engine crews, one helicopter and a 10-person ground crew on scene.
After numerous loads of retardant slowed a fast-moving fire in the Sapphire Mountains on Thursday, firefighters turned their attention to another new blaze burning just west of Hamilton.
The Canyon Creek fire started Thursday afternoon west of Blodgett Canyon near Canyon Peak.
Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay said eight heli-reppellers were already fighting the fire. Six Bitterroot Hotshots were expected to join them later Thursday evening.
“We wanted to get some more boots on the ground up there,” McKay said.
The fire is estimated to be between three and five acres.
“It has kind of laid down,” McKay said. “It’s not been growing as fast as it was earlier today.”
Two large air tankers that had focused their attention on the Buckhorn fire burning near Gird Point Lookout earlier in the day were redirected to the Canyon Creek fire late Thursday afternoon.
“They were pretty much able to surround the Buckhorn fire with retardant,” McKay said. “They managed to slow it down a lot.”
The Buckhorn fire grew from a little over an acre to about 10 acres in a matter of an hour.
The air tankers, working in conjunction with a helicopter and ground crews, managed to keep it from continuing to grow.
“At this point, Canyon Creek is our focus,” McKay said. “The big concern is that it will come out of the canyon, especially with tomorrow’s weather forecast.”
The National Weather Service is calling for sustained high winds, lightning and heavy rain Friday.
The Bitterroot Forest requested additional resources Thursday afternoon.
McKay said officials also met with the Hamilton fire chief and Ravalli County sheriff to begin planning different contingencies in case the Canyon fire did start to move down the canyon toward private land.
Bitterroot Forest fire management officer Mark Wilson said the fires that started Thursday were driven by high temperatures and low humidity levels.
The moisture that came with the last lightning storm and helped dampen earlier fire starts was gone after two days of hot and dry weather.
“We definitely saw some very active fire behavior today,” Wilson said. “The two fires that started this afternoon had enough exposure to the wind and the fuel conditions were right for them to burn past our initial attack.”
The retardant drops around the Buckhorn fire knocked the fire down enough to allow firefighters to get close enough to engage it.
“I wouldn’t call it a caught fire at this point,” Wilson said.