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Red-flag conditions stoke western Montana wildfires

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Cabin wrap

The Gold Creek Patrol Cabin gets wrapped in fire-resistant foil to protect it from the expanding Boulder Lake fire northeast of Missoula. 

Red-flag conditions on Wednesday drove activity on wildfires new and old across western Montana and east-central Idaho. 

Temperatures into the 90s, gusty winds upward of 30 mph and humidity values down to the teens created prime wildfire conditions from Missoula to Challis, Idaho, Wednesday afternoon. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning, indicating extreme wildfire risk, from noon to midnight Wednesday covering nearly the entirety of the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest regions, including Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington and Oregon, and large swaths of South Dakota, Nebraska and the Kansas-Colorado border. 

North of Missoula, the Boulder Lake fire ballooned from 25 to 300 acres on Tuesday "due to critical fire weather conditions including low humidity and wind gusts," according to Lolo National Forest officials. The fire is located about a mile east of Boulder Lake in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. Boulder Lake, Fly Lake and Gold Creek Lake are closed, as are trails accessing those lakes. The lightning-caused fire was discovered Saturday. 

"Firefighters are on-scene assessing the situation and scouting for possible containment options outside of the wilderness to the southeast of the fire," forest officials stated. "Helicopters may be used periodically to limit fire spread."

A Type-III incident commander and personnel from the Missoula Ranger District were assigned to the fire, and "additional resource staffing will vary if conditions change." On Tuesday, crews cleared fuels from around the Gold Creek Cabin and wrapped it in aluminized material to protect from embers. 

About 5 miles southeast of Sula, just north of the Idaho-Montana line and along the Ravalli-Beaverhead county line, the lightning-caused Trail Ridge fire expanded dramatically on Tuesday, growing from 2,742 acres to 10,874. Fire growth was primarily to the east, within a burn scar from 2000. The fire was 0% contained on Wednesday morning. The fire straddles the boundary between the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests. Twenty-eight personnel were assigned to the fire Wednesday. 

"Rapid growth and hazardous conditions exist and are being assessed by firefighters in the area for containment options and will begin to prep containment lines along the West and North sides of the fire," fire managers from Central Montana Type III Incident Management Team wrote in an update Wednesday. "As the fire grows, we will continue to monitor values at risk, evaluate the best options for value protection, and begin to implement this plan."

A public meeting for the fire is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Springer Clubhouse in Sula. 

In central Idaho, the community of Orogrande was ordered to evacuate Wednesday afternoon due to growth of the Williams Creek fire directly west of the Idaho County community, located 9.6 miles southwest of Elk City and 75 miles southwest of Hamilton, Montana. The county sheriff stated in announcing the evacuation order on Wednesday that "fire behavior has increased dramatically." The lightning-caused fire was discovered Aug. 29 and had grown to 5,197 acres by the end of Tuesday. Fire managers from Northern Rockies Type II Team 5 stated that "fire growth outpaced" firefighting efforts during initial attack of the fire. 

Elsewhere in Idaho, the Moose fire grew to 107,523 acres by Wednesday morning and had forced the depowering of active and exploratory mines about 11.5 miles west of Salmon and 11 miles south of where the human-caused fire ignited along the Salmon River on July 17. A spot fire that started around Jefferson Creek on Monday ran more than a mile Tuesday and reached the Beartrack Mine, a gold mine operated by Toronto-based Revival Gold. Around 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, power was cut to the Panther Creek and Leesburg areas, including the Beartrack, Blackbird and Idaho Cobalt mines. Miners and others in the area were evacuated. Fire behavior caused firefighting ground crews to temporarily disengage from the fire and retreat to safety zones. 

The fire was most active between Arnett and Allen creeks, spreading at about 0.5 mph and spotting up to 1 mile out. Containment of the fire stood at 44% Wednesday morning, with 650 personnel assigned to the fire, including nine hand crews, 26 engine crews and five helicopters. On Wednesday, photos from Salmon showed a towering plume of smoke rising from west of town. 

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Outdoors Reporter

Joshua Murdock covers the outdoors and natural resources for the Missoulian.

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