Where there’s smoke, there’s ... well, you know the rest.
And if you live here, you know there’s smoke. It blankets Montana’s westernmost counties, on Tuesday in concentrations that caused air quality to be rated from “hazardous” in Libby to “very unhealthy” virtually everywhere else.
At Glacier Park International Airport north of Kalispell, a spokeswoman said the smoke had caused one flight cancellation and two flights to be diverted. The ALERT helicopter at Kalispell Regional Medical Center was also unable to respond Monday to an ATV accident because of poor visibility.
The wildfires responsible are many, and many are burning in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, where huge blazes are torching significantly more acreage than are the dozens of wildfires in Montana, at significantly higher cost, including the deaths of three firefighters in Washington.
In fact, all three nearby states are battling single incidents, or complexes, that are larger – some more than three times larger – than every wildfire burning in Montana combined.
Still, Montana’s fires have forced evacuations of homes along the Bull River and temporarily closed a major highway last week.
And now, one is threatening the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, home to trees up to 1,000 years old and 12 feet in diameter, in the Kootenai National Forest.
A calculator and a check of InciWeb, the U.S. Forest Service’s interagency all-risk web information management system, revealed this about Montana’s 2015 wildfire season through Tuesday:
• There are 86,874 acres that have burned or are on fire.
• There are 24 ongoing incidents, although several include multiple fires. One, the Spotted Bear District fires, includes 19 separate active fires, mostly in the Great Bear or Bob Marshall wilderness areas. Most are unstaffed. They are lightning-caused, average approximately 25 acres apiece and are being monitored for fire activity.
• The state’s largest fire was one of its smaller ones until last week. On Thursday, the Bear Creek fire southeast of Swan Lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness exploded from 465 acres to more than 17,000 in just four hours. High winds, hot temperatures and low humidity fueled the rapid spread of flames. It has grown to 20,450 acres in the days since.
• There are likely more than 1,900 personnel assigned to Montana’s multiple wildfires. With four incidents on InciWeb not indicating how many personnel were working those fires, the ones that did totaled 1,871.
In California, where hundreds of thousands of acres are on fire, at least one wildfire – the Rough fire near Kings Canyon National Park – may have more personnel working it than every fire in Montana combined. Almost 2,000 personnel are assigned to the 52,000-acre blaze.
Fires across the drought-stricken West have stretched firefighting resources thin.
That – and the extreme fire danger – were reasons Plum Creek cited as it announced Tuesday it is restricting public access and land use activities on all of its lands in Missoula, Flathead, Ravalli, Lake, Sanders and Lincoln counties.
“Plum Creek appreciates the public’s continued cooperation in helping to protect its timberlands from the risk of wildfires,” Tom Ray, the company’s vice president of Northwest resources and manufacturing, said in the announcement. “The current fire risk situation is extreme and suppression resources are stretched to the maximum.”
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Stage 2 fire restrictions are in effect on all Plum Creek lands in the state. Restrictions include bans on motorized vehicles both on or off-road, unless the road is an “open” public designated road; camping; campfires or fires of any kind; firewood cutting; internal combustion engines; smoking in our outside vehicles; fireworks; cutting, welding or grinding; grass cutting; target shooting, exploding targets or tracer ammunitions; driving on grass covered roads both public and private; and parking in tall, dry grass.
Meantime, all of Murphy Lake south of Eureka has been closed to all recreation activity, including swimming and motorized and non-motorized boating, to protect the public as Chinook helicopters use the lake to collect water to fight the three fires that make up the Northeast Kootenai complex of fires.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the closure would remain in effect “as long as the lake is needed as a source of water for fire suppression efforts.”
The Northeast Kootenai complex includes the 3,300-acre Marston fire three miles southeast of Fortine, which is only 5 percent contained. The complex has 303 firefighting personnel assigned to it, most of any in the state.
Next are fires that appear to be posing the greatest threat to the largest number of structures. The Thompson-Divide Complex, which includes the 607-acre Sheep fire near Essex, and the Clark Fork Complex, which includes the Napoleon 1 fire that has forced evacuations in the Montana Highway 56 corridor along the Bull River, both have 277 personnel assigned to them.
Also drawing significant resources are the 2,850-acre Sucker Creek fire north of Lincoln (182), the 210-acre Scotchmans Gulch fire west of Philipsburg (144), the 527-acre Morrell Complex northeast of Seeley Lake (134), the 4,311-acre Reynolds Creek fire still burning in Glacier National Park (133) and the 2,322-acre Muddy Creek 2 fire south of Lame Deer (132).
At the Sheep fire Tuesday, incident commanders were making use of BNSF Railway tracks that were temporarily closed last week to ferry in both firefighters and equipment.
Fire information officer Jonathan Moor said that included at least three feller-bunchers, large machines with an arm that both saws a tree and then pick it up.
“They’ll be removing fuels between the fire and Essex,” Moor said, with the cut trees placed on flatbed railroad cars and removed from the vicinity.
Meantime, at the Clark Fork Complex north near Noxon, evacuation orders remained in effect for homes along more than 11 miles of Highway 56.
Fire information officer Glenda Scott said the Sawtooth fire farther north had been added to the complex, and it is within approximately two miles of the spectacular Ross Creek Cedar Scenic Area, where giant red cedars have survived 1,000 years of wildfires, including the devastating 1910 fires.
“The Sawtooth fire has the potential to move into the Ross Creek cedar grove,” Scott said. “We’re putting effort into putting in a line, and reducing fuel, there.”
Structure protection, and keeping the Napoleon fire off private property, is also a priority.
Many Montana fires reported that the smoke trapped in the skies over the western part of the state had helped to cool temperatures and moderate fire activity, but Scott noted it was a double-edged sword.
Visibility issues limited water drops by helicopters, too.