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Big Prairie Brownstone fire

Smoke from the Brownstone fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness rises above the Big Prairie Work Center. 

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service said Wednesday that Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley could see some rain-producing thunderstorms on Friday, as weather models continue to be updated.

Meteorologist Jeff Kitsmiller set the chances of precipitation at 50 percent, good news for a region that hasn't seen measurable precipitation for 43 days — since July 3 — three days short of the record set last summer. During that time, the grasslands surrounding Missoula have dried out and become easy fuel for fires.

The thunderstorms forecast for Thursday are still expected to be dry, with just a 20 percent chance of rain. Humidity levels are expected to increase, allowing for wet thunderstorms to form from Missoula to Ennis. The Haines Index that measures potential fire growth will be at the maximum level of 6.

There is some good news for northwest Montana, which is dealing with a large number of wildfires. The high winds that often come with thunderstorms should stay south of many of those fires as the thunderstorms are forecast to form south of the Mission Valley, according to meteorologist Korby Dickerson.

While thunderstorms are expected Thursday and Friday, Dickerson and Kitsmiller agreed that it’s tough to know exactly when and where the storms will form, or how much wind the storms could produce.

Wildfires and smoke continue to be on the minds of many in northwestern and southwestern Montana.

On Wednesday, Inciweb, the National Wildlife Coordinating Group's fire tracker, listed 18 active fires from the Canadian border to the fringe of Yellowstone National Park. Seven have burned 1,300 acres or more, topped by the Davis fire that had grown minimally to 5,565 acres by Wednesday afternoon. 

Ten miles northwest of the town of Yaak, the Davis fire crossed the international line into British Columbia last weekend.

The Howe Ridge fire near Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park was at 2,600 acres, and the Garden Creek fire near Hot Springs remained at 2,052 acres.

Two large fires are burning in the Gravelly Range south of Virginia City. The Wigwam fire broke out last weekend after a lightning strike and was at 2,300 acres Wednesday. The 4,415-acre Monument fire started on Aug. 6 18 miles southwest of Ennis and forced the evacuation of eight families from a subdivision. 

In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where fire suppression is prohibited, a skeleton crew at the Big Prairie Work Center wrapped a filter house for the water system as the 1,707-acre Brownstone fire menaced in the mountains to the east.

Three firefighters have been on guard at Big Prairie, but they were joined by more on Wednesday.

"By the end of today we should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 folks that could take action" if the fire came down, said Jim Flint, fire management officer for the Spotted Bear Ranger District. 

Flint said long-term modeling is showing there's good potential for the fire to come down Brownstone, Sandstone, or Francois creek to the river valley, though he said the work center is "very defendable."

"We won't be doing any extensive wrapping at that site. It's the same methodology we took in 2003 and 2011," Flint said. "There are a few scattered trees around the station, but as far as any kind of continuous timber, fire is not really a threat there.

"Of course embers from the main fire or fire in the grass are something we have to be diligent on, but we'll have people standing at each individual structure."

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