Sawmill Gulch fire file

Smoke from a 125-acre prescribed burn in the Sawmill Gulch hiking area north of Missoula could be seen in spring 2018. 

Missoula skies may get obscured by a different kind of spring cloud as open-burning season gets underway.

The Nature Conservancy plans an 85-acre hazardous-fuels reduction project starting this week if weather and safety conditions allow, according to TNC spokeswoman Bebe Crouse. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and University of Montana will all contribute staff to the project, which takes place around Baldy Mountain near Greenough, northeast of Missoula.

“There’s a lot coming down the pipeline for understory burns,” Missoula County air quality specialist Sarah Coefield said on Monday. “With the warmer weather and more sun we’re getting on landscapes, we’re getting to a place where we’re able to carry a flame but not get out of control.”

Coefield said the TNC burn will likely send most of its smoke east into remote areas. However, another scheduled burn along an airstrip by Condon could result in smoke lingering in the Swan Valley northeast of Missoula. And lots of people have taken out private burning permits in Missoula County for slash and debris removal.

“We have close to 2,100 burn requests put in already,” Coefield said. “We had a slow start to the season because winter was so cold through March. About 65 people put in to burn around Missoula County on Monday.”

Open burning is allowed from March 1 to Aug. 31, if conditions permit. Coefield said the season frequently closes around the end of June or early July as the threat of wildfire grows. Burn permits are restricted after the end of August because the increased burning activity from logging projects and agriculture field clearing tends to overwhelm local airsheds.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.