At 1 p.m. Friday, helicopters took to the skies to help ignite 50 acres as part of the Moose Kelley planned burn in the North Fork Ranger District, according to Gregg Goodland, a public information officer for the forest. The 50 acres is down from the earlier prescription for 150 acres, since part of the area was ignited earlier by a lightning strike.
“Mother Nature must be on board because she put the lighting strike where we were planning on burning,” Goodland said. “What we will see here in Missoula, or are likely to see, is smoke from the initial pulse of the 50 acres we ignite.”
That prescribed burn is about 40 miles west of Missoula County, noted Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the City-County Health Department. She expects the southern part of Missoula County and the northern Bitterroot Valley to experience the smoke from the burn late Friday afternoon and into the evening.
“This is a smaller acreage than we saw ignited on Wednesday, and by starting the burn earlier in the day, the hope is that most of the smoke will pass overhead before the evening down-drainage winds start pulling high-elevation air to the valley floor,” Coefield wrote in a news release.
Earlier this week, the Barnard Junction prescribed burn on 80 acres pushed smoke into the Missoula valley about 7 p.m. It had dissipated by Thursday morning, and Goodland said that burn currently is creeping along slowly, and occasionally torching trees.
With the wet spring and cool summer, both the Barnard and Moose Kelly prescribed burns are expected to last for the next few weeks.
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The lightning-caused Shale Creek fire, which is burning adjacent to the Moose Kelly prescribed burn area, covers about 75 acres and was reported on Aug. 26. It doesn’t pose a risk to communities, and like the Moose Kelly burn is being managed to improve elk habitat, moderate future fire effect, and restore forest structure and vegetation.
Coefield recommends going online to her Smoke Ready blog or Climate Smart Missoula’s wildfire smoke website www.montanawildfiresmoke.org for information on how to deal with the smoke. The health department will send out health advisories if air quality deteriorates.
Goodland said the Lochsa Ranger District is considering igniting the Weitas prescribed fire on Monday.
"They are running smoke and fire models today but may not be able to make a final decision until Sunday as weather forecasts are pretty uncertain right now," Goodland said.
He noted that the prescriptions for the 3,000-acre Weitas burn, the 7,000-acre Barnard burn area and the 1,200-acre Moose Kelly burn area is expected to remain small. If they grow beyond the prescriptions, crews will try to extinguish them using water dropped from helicopters and ground crews.
"There's not a lot of likelihood those will get that big, but it is possible," Goodland said. "Once they start pushing toward the outer skirts of the project area, we will take appropriate actions to stop them."