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Thompson fire, Glacier Park

Plumes of smoke from the Thompson Fire in Glacier National Park rise into the sky, seen from Lost Creek Road and Farm-to-Market Road west of Kalispell on Tuesday. The fire, burning heavy timber in the south-central part of Glacier National Park, has prompted some trail and campsite closures.

The Thompson fire in southeastern Glacier National Park exploded from 1,900 acres to about 11,400 acres between Monday and Tuesday afternoons, as western Montana recovered from a line of thunderstorms Monday night.

“The lack of moisture, high temperatures, low humidity and dry vegetation have resulted in extreme fire behavior and fire growth,” Glacier spokeswoman Katelyn Liming said in an email Tuesday. “The smoke plume is visible from areas on both the west and east sides of the Continental Divide.”

Given the fire’s remote location, the National Park Service is using a “contain and confine” strategy to manage it, Liming said. Helicopters are using bucket drops to cool its hot spots, while natural rock outcrops are blocking some of the spread.

The Upper and Lower Nyack backcountry patrol cabins are threatened by the fire, with ground crews setting up protection Tuesday for the lower cabin. However, firefighters have not been sent to the fire's perimeter due to extreme terrain conditions.

The Nyack and Coal Creek trails have been closed to hikers, and additional trail closures may be ordered depending on the fire’s movements. Up-to-date trail status reports can be found at 1.usa.gov/1JbtSTr.

The Reynolds Creek fire along Going-to-the-Sun Road in the St. Mary Valley remained at 4,311 acres and was 67 percent contained Tuesday.

Trails within the fire perimeter – including those leading to Gunsight Pass from the Sun Road and St. Mary, Virginia and Baring Creek falls – remain closed, as does the Rising Sun Campground. Going-to-the-Sun Road is open only to vehicles from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

On Wednesday, the park restricted campfires to front-country campgrounds at Apgar, Avalanche, Bowman Lake, Cut Bank, Fish Creek, Kintla Lake, Logging Creek, Many Glacier, Quartz Lake, Sprague Creek, St. Mary and Two Medicine.

Only liquid petroleum or LPG-fueled stoves, lanterns or heating devices are allowed in backcountry sites.

“The park is experiencing extreme fire conditions, and to help reduce the risk of fire we are implementing fire restrictions for our backcountry campgrounds and recreation sites,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “The backcountry restrictions will help to protect public and employee safety, as well as protect park resources and facilities.” 

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The Sucker Creek fire on the Helena National Forest northeast of Lincoln put up an impressive smoke column visible from both Lincoln and Helena as it burned an estimated 50 to 100 acres Tuesday afternoon.

It was burning in a stand of dense timber on steep terrain, according to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell, and has a crew of 20 firefighters with helicopter backup assigned.

Forest Service officials have closed the Sucker Creek Road (Forest Road 1800) from the national forest boundary on the west to the junction of Forest Road 1821, as well as the Snowbank Trail.

In the Lolo National Forest around Missoula, dispatchers sent crews to investigate at least 17 reported possible ignitions Tuesday, according to spokesman Boyd Hartwig.

That included five reports in the Ninemile Ranger District, four each in the Thompson Falls and Missoula ranger districts, three in the Superior Ranger District and one in the Seeley Lake Ranger District. Hartwig said no structures were threatened, and most of the starts were one-tenth of an acre or smaller.

However, the Holloman Saddle fire 10 miles southeast of Missoula was at least a quarter-acre and had a crew of 10 firefighters assigned. Hartwig said more blazes could turn up as reconnaissance flights patrol the area in the next several days.

Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation crews were working on a 23-acre wildfire near Ovando on Tuesday.

The Scotty Brown fire initially forced the evacuation of several homes, but those buildings are now in low-risk areas, according to DNRC spokesman Jordan Koppen. The River Junction Road is closed to non-emergency traffic because of the fire danger.

A Type 2 incident command team was expected to take over management of the fire late Tuesday evening. 

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Bitterroot National Forest firefighters made quick work of nine of the 11 fires started by a fast-moving and violent storm Monday night.

“So far, we’re winning,” fire management officer Mark Wilson said early Tuesday afternoon.

All of the nine fires were kept at less than a quarter acre.

“What it really came down to was that none of the fires were in a key location that would have allowed for a rapid spread and the storm brought just enough moisture to keep them in check until we could get there with folks and helicopters,” Wilson said.

The fires were staffed with crews ranging from two to five firefighters. Some of the firefighters were transported to the scene by helicopter.

Good work by meteorologists also provided enough advance notice of the oncoming storm for crews to make preparations needed a quick initial attack, Wilson said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, only the small fire in the Lost Trail area had officially been declared out, but Wilson said the others were well in hand.

On the Stevensville Ranger District, four fires were staffed by firefighters between Burnt Fork Lake and Willow Mountain. Another two were in the Butterfly area between the Vermiculite Mine and Fool Hen Lake.

Firefighters were still looking for two fires that were spotted Monday evening between Burnt Fork Lake and Willow Mountain.

On the Darby-Sula Ranger District, firefighters were working on four fires. Those were located nine miles up Lost Horse, Benson Creek off Rye Creek, the East Fork’s Martin Creek and Whiskey Gulch near Robbins Gulch.

About 30 firefighters were assigned to the fires.

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Over the border on the Idaho’s Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, lightning sparked more than 70 fires over the past 24 hours. An additional 25 starts were burning on state and private lands.

The storm produced more than 2,500 lightning strikes in the area. By Tuesday night, smoke from the Idaho ignitions was visible in the Missoula Valley.

A Northern Rockies Type 1 command team has been assigned to the Lawyer Complex near Kamiah, Idaho. A Type 2 team from western Montana received an in-briefing Tuesday afternoon and will take command of the complex at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

Greg Poncin’s Type 1 team is slated to arrive Wednesday and will be in-briefed in Orofino at 6 p.m. Command will pass from Bob Fry’s Type 2 team to Poncin’s team the following day. The fires are concentrated in four main areas: Kamiah, Pilot Knob, Syringa and Lolo Creek. At least 25 fires are burning in the Kamiah area and another 25 have been identified around Pilot Knob. Firefighters are also evaluating a cluster of 10 fires at Mex Mountain.

The Lawyer Complex consists of 21 fires, all started Monday by lightning. The fires total about 800 acres, and are burning in steep canyons on the north side of Highway 64, which runs between Kamiah and Nezperce.

Level II evacuations are in place for the Lawyer Complex on the north side of Highway 64 between milemarkers 20 and 30.5 and on Highway 12 from milemarkers 61 to 64. Under Level II evacuations, residents should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Highway 64 from Nezperce to Kamiah has been closed because of fire activity

Wilson said there was a lot of lightning in Monday’s storm on the Bitterroot Forest. He expects some of those strikes will turn into new fire starts.

An air patrol went looking for new starts early Tuesday afternoon.

“Quite often, we’ll see fires pop up the next afternoon following a storm,” Wilson said. “We have another red flag warning for Tuesday. Things could change here rapidly.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.