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Rain gives Glacier firefighters a respite; air throughout Montana improves, except in northwest

Rain gives Glacier firefighters a respite; air throughout Montana improves, except in northwest

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A half-hour rainstorm and shift in winds at Glacier National Park on Monday markedly improved visibility and air quality at Apgar Village, allowing visitors to see the peaks at Lake McDonald's far end for the first time in days.

Rain and wind also cleared out some of the airborne particulates that prompted the state Department of Environmental Quality on Sunday to issue the first statewide air quality alert in memory.

By Monday afternoon, air quality had returned to "moderate'' levels in all but three areas of the state: Frenchtown, Thompson Falls and Libby. Air quality there remained "unhealthy for sensitive groups,'' including those with respiratory and heart ailments, the elderly and children.

In Glacier, the Howe Ridge fire's stated size remained about 7,800 acres Monday afternoon. The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management team, which is managing this fire, has requested another infrared flyover that will allow the fire to be re-measured. When it occurs will depend upon conditions and availability.

The improved conditions allowed two CL-215 "superscoopers" to spend much of Monday afternoon attacking the fire, drawing spectators to the shoreline. Firefighters are reinforcing the Fish Creek Campground area with sprinklers and containment lines, and are using pumps and hoses to protect Going-to-the-Sun Road.

An evacuation warning has been issued for the area north of the Quarter Circle Bridge Road, meaning that those in Apgar, the Grist Road, and all areas accessed from Quarter Circle Bridge Road should be prepared to leave. Trails off the Camas Road are closed. The road itself was closed Sunday night but re-opened in the morning.

Going-to-the-Sun Road remains closed from the foot of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass, and an evacuation order is in effect for the Fish Creek Campground.

Near Glacier's edges, the Coal Ridge, Whale Butte and Paola Ridge fires were last measured at 280, 251 and 364 acres, respectively. An evacuation warning has been issued for some residents near Essex, but otherwise no other warnings or orders have been issued for these fires.

Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, said despite the improvements Monday, the region is likely to see more unhealthy air in its valleys.

 "Looking toward the future, the high elevation winds that are currently coming from the southwest are going to switch direction by tomorrow and come at us from the northeast,'' she said in an air quality alert Monday. "Over the next several days there’s going to be some general high-level wind swirliness happening over Missoula, and the air is going to come at us from many different directions.

"I have a suspicion that this may just mean the overhead smoke gets pushed and pulled and generally stays in our area and, to spice things up, we’ll see an occasional influx of new smoke. However! There’s also a possibility we’ll catch a break and we’ll see clean air delivered to our valleys.''

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