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Garden Creek fire

The Garden Creek fire

Western Montana is dry and combustible with fire danger rated as Extreme in most of the northwest region — and more smoke is on the way, too.

Wednesday brought an unwelcome sense of deja vu to Seeley Lake — which suffered under a blanket of thick smoke last summer — with the air quality there rated “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” according to the Missoula City-County Health Department. Most of the county has Moderate air quality, though.

And, not every place is under campfire prohibitions.

“This week may be the hottest of the summer so far with temperatures expected to exceed 100 degrees,” noted the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation.

So far, though, Flathead County, Flathead National Forest, and Glacier National Park are not under restrictions, according to the most recent report from the DNRC. Neither are the Stillwater, Swan and Kalispell units of the DNRC.

Near-record high temperatures are expected Friday, though, and elsewhere, campfire restrictions are coming.

Jordan Koppen, with the Southwestern Land Office of the DNRC, urged the public to be cautious with any activity that might start a fire, such as equipment operation, anything that produces sparks, or dragging tow chains.

“Our wildland firefighters face a long, arduous fire season even without having to respond to human-caused fires,” Koppen said in a news release. “The more careful we are with fire, the less danger our first responders will face.”

The news released noted West Central Montana fire managers decided to go into Stage II Fire Restrictions starting this Friday morning. Visit firerestrictions.us to learn about restrictions.

Stage II fire restrictions also will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday in Missoula, according to a news release from the city of Missoula. The city notes the restrictions affect city open space and conservation lands, including Mount Sentinel, the North Hills, Mount Jumbo and all other city conservation lands. 

Missoula Fire Chief Jeff Brandt and Mayor John Engen joined federal, state and county officials in moving to Stage II restrictions because of continuing dry conditions and hot weather. The city may consider closures or “hoot owl” restrictions if hot weather persists.

On Friday, Bitterroot National Forest and Ravalli County will implement Stage II fire restrictions as well. Stage II restrictions prohibit campfires. Smoking is prohibited except within an enclosed vehicle or building or while stopped in an area that is clear of all flammable materials in a 3-foot circle.

Stage II restrictions on city open space and conservation lands also prohibit operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails; operating any internal combustion engine, welding or operating acetylene or other torch with open flame or use of any explosives between 1 p.m. and 6 a.m. These activities are normally prohibited on city open space and conservation lands.

The news release from the city notes the following:

The areas affected by the restrictions include conservation and parklands of Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, including the Cox Property; North Hills; the Kim Williams Trail; Greenough Park; and the Tower Street conservation area as well as all other city-owned conservation lands. See the City Parks, Trails, and Open Space map online ci.missoula.mt.us/468/available-maps.

According to the DNRC, the Kootenai National Forest, Lincoln County, and Libby unit of the DNRC are in Stage I fire restrictions. Sanders County and the Plains Unit go into Stage II Friday, as do Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe lands. However, the DNRC noted the north part of Lake County and the Swan will not be in restrictions.

***

More smoke is headed to the Missoula Valley this week, according to an update from air quality specialist Ben Schmidt. In the Wednesday email, he said a lot of smoke in western Montana is coming from fires in Washington, northern Idaho, Canada and elsewhere.

“In the satellite pictures you could see the Washington smoke heading almost due east then take a hard right turn to travel south through western Montana,” Schmidt said.

The update also noted the following:

“We can expect hazy conditions and potentially more smoke on the valley floors into Friday this week with a decent chance of Good air quality by Saturday when a dry cold front moves through. As the smoke mixes down, air quality could become unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse over the next couple of days in Missoula County.

“Be alert for changing conditions and bookmark Montana’s Today’s Air website so you can keep track of the smoke we’re seeing at our monitors: http://svc.mt.gov/deq/todaysair/.“"

***

Activity picked up Tuesday night and Wednesday on Montana’s scattered fires, most notably the Garden Creek fire on the Flathead Indian Reservation northwest of Hot Springs.

At 1,842 acres, it’s now the largest in the state, burning in steep, rocky terrain on a mountainside. A local Type 3 incident management team is managing it.

The lightning-sparked fire was set at 524 acres on Tuesday, though C.T. Camel of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Division of Fire said that was a bit misleading. Some of the growth was due to burnouts to solidify fire lines.

“We get our latest GPS (reading) at 8 p.m. when the helicopter gets on the ground by dark, or pumpkin time,” Camel said. “So it didn’t triple in size. It probably doubled, for sure. I think it was already close to 800 acres, maybe 900, but last night they burned out a lot.”

The fire burned actively all Tuesday night into Wednesday with group torching and spotting up to a quarter mile. The temperature was reportedly 80 degrees with 24 percent relative humidity at 2 a.m. It remains on the timbered mountainside, with most of its activity to the south and east in the direction of Hot Springs and Montana Highway 28.

One home at the bottom of the mountain off Garden Creek Road was evacuated and firefighters burned around it. Camel said it was more of a precaution as the fire was a half-mile or more away. No other structures were threatened.  

A minimal crew of five was monitoring the Brownstone fire on the Spotted Bear Ranger District in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The lightning-ignited fire was detected last Thursday midway between Condon and Augusta and was up to 269 acres at last report.

According to InciWeb, the fire has been active on the south flank at the head of Brownstone Creek and on the west flank in the creek bottom. It’s expected to make runs to the north up the divide between Brownstone and the South Fork of White River, and to the south toward the divide with Francois Creek.

Personnel and equipment have been pre-positioned at Big Prairie Work Center for point protection around structures.

 The 2017 fire season: One of the worst in decades

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