This string of hot, dry days notwithstanding, the rhythm of a quiet fire summer is expected to continue in western Montana.
Humidity at the National Weather Service in Missoula dipped as low as 11% Tuesday afternoon as a handful of new fires whipped up from Lolo Pass to the Continental Divide east of Lincoln. Eleven percent is lower by seven to 10 points than usual this summer, meteorologist Ryan Leach said.
“We haven’t had a day like this in quite a while,” Leach said. “But we’re expecting a very wet weather system this weekend.”
Hundreds of lightning strikes late last week likely triggered the new fire starts, including the Horsefly fire east of Lincoln that was discovered Monday afternoon, grew quickly to 500 acres and forced evacuation orders on the east side of Flesher Pass.
Two fires started in the upper Lolo Creek drainage, although firefighters expected the 4-acre West Fork Lolo 2 fire to be contained by Tuesday night. Four miles away, near Lolo Pass, the Wagon Mountain fire had reached 15 acres “varying with spot fires,” a spokesperson from the Lolo National Forest said.
Showers in the Bitterroot and Missoula areas could start as early as Wednesday night.
High temperatures in the valleys were expected to reach well into the 90s on Wednesday and Thursday, in the 80s on Friday and Saturday, and in the 70s on Sunday and Monday. Sunday’s forecast high is predicted at 72 degrees.
Along with the cool-down will come showers and, starting Thursday, thunderstorms after noon.
“The bad scenario that we’ve seen in years past is we get one or two thunderstorm outbreaks and then go into an extended dry period,” said Leach. “That’s just not the case this year.”
Wagon Mountain fire: The fire a couple of miles northeast of the Lolo Pass Visitor Center was burning actively on Tuesday, with single and group tree torching, spotting and wind-driven runs. A third 20-person hand crew and excavator arrived in the morning, with more resources ordered and arriving. The fire was burning in a previously logged area in new regeneration as well as mature spruce and mixed conifer.
A release from the Lolo National Forest said that due to the fires’ complexity and fire behavior, a Type 3 Incident Commander is managing it.
The Lee Creek Forest Service campground two miles southwest of Lolo Hot Springs was temporarily closed for the staging of firefighting equipment to use on both fires.
“Additional closures are forthcoming and will include long-term closure of Lee Creek campground,” the media release said.
Horsefly fire: A public meeting was planned for Tuesday evening in Canyon Creek north of Helena to discuss the Horsefly fire. It’s burning in dead and beetle-killed timber eight miles east of Lincoln.
It started Monday afternoon 1 to 2 miles from the older Black Diamond fire. The two have joined.
The fire was estimated at 1,500 acres Monday but that was revised to 500 after an infrared flight Monday night. Evacuation orders have been issued to residents in the Flesher Acres Subdivision on the east side of Flesher Pass on Montana Highway 279.
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The 56-acre Nevada Creek fire to the southwest was reported last Thursday and remains just 10% contained. Mike Almas’ Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 3 is in charge of both fires.
Beeskove fire: Smoke from the Rattlesnake Creek fire 4 ½ miles from Missoula was visible from downtown again Tuesday afternoon. There’s a pending management change from Type 3 to a Type 2 team managed by Joe Sampson’s Northern Rockies Team 5, although the timing was still unknown.
The fire grew slightly Monday into Tuesday, from 343 to 347 acres, and remained in the Rattlesnake drainage with 309 personnel assigned to all sides of it.
The Missoula Ranger District said Tuesday morning it was roughly doubling the closure area for the Beeskove fire to include more public lands and road adjacent to West Riverside, Bonner and the lower Blackfoot.
“The main reason, honestly, is we have a lot of our fire activity as far as suppression folks going in that area,” said Chris Ziegler, public affairs officer on the fire. “There is no burning fire active up there but those are narrow roads and a lot of recreational folks go up there. It’s a safety issue for the public.”
Sheep Mountain Trailhead and the access roads to it from the main Gold Creek Road are included in the shutdown. So are Mineral Peak Lookout and the forest roads to it; Woody Mountain and the Johnson Creek area a mile north of Bonner, and the Upper Twin Creek/Sheep Mountain Spur Trail 505.
Heavy machinery and crews have moved into the areas in the last few days in an attempt to prevent the 347-acre fire from spreading east and south should it top the ridge.
The lightning-caused Beeskove fire was first detected on Tuesday, July 23. Two days later trails in the Rattlesnake Creek and East Rattlesnake were closed to facilitate firefighting measures, as were portions of Sheep Mountain and Mineral Peak trails.
The main Rattlesnake Trailhead and trail were closed Monday and Tuesday for dust abatement work. The trail will be reopened Wednesday up to Poe Meadow. The horse trailhead on the east side of the creek is closed for staging of vehicles.
The ranger district said many areas of the Rattlesnake remain open, including Sawmill Gulch, the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Woods Gulch trailhead and the Marshall Canyon area.
Snow Creek fire: A lightning fire that started Friday in the Bob Marshall Wilderness blew up from 30 to 475 acres on Monday, crossing the Middle Fork of the Flathead River to the northeast of and across the Swan Range from Condon. It was spreading rapidly Tuesday on both sides of the river and up the Helen Creek drainage. The fire is roughly 3 miles below the mouth of Big Salmon Lake and 26 miles above Hungry Horse Reservoir.
Fifteen firefighters were on it, primarily to protect the Black Bear Administrative site and a historic cabin and pack bridge.
Mandy Creek fire: Further west in Sanders County, a 10-acre fire was attacked Tuesday afternoon with multiple helicopters, according to the Flathead Beacon. The fire, some 25 miles up the Thompson River, was being managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Interagency fire officials across northwest Montana raised fire danger from “High” to “Very High” on Tuesday. Since July 1 there have been 33 reported wildfires in the area, with more than half being human-caused, according to a joint release issued by Glacier National Park, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Flathead National Forest and Flathead County Office of Emergency Services.
Missoula County raised its fire danger level to “Very High” on July 29 and issued an emergency fire proclamation two days later.