Libby, Montana

A forest fire burning near the site of Libby’s now-closed vermiculite mine is being fought by a crew outfitted with specialized respirators.

The Highway 37 fire was first discovered Thursday afternoon, and is believed to have been human-caused. It measured 40 acres to 60 acres Friday morning, according to Kootenai National Forest Staff Officer Cami Winslow. That puts it about 1 mile to 1.5 miles west of the Libby Superfund site’s Operable Unit 3, a 35,000-acre forested zone where W.R. Grace mined asbestos-contaminated vermiculite for decades.

Now, firefighters are working to keep the blaze from getting closer.

“Currently, it’s not growing, thankfully,” Dan Rose, forest fire management officer for Kootenai National Forest, said Friday. Firefighters “did a really good job yesterday … and they’re continuing that work today.”

Asbestos still lingers in Operable Unit 3’s trees and soil. Research shows that when this material burns, the majority of asbestos fibers stay in the ash rather than go airborne. But the fibers' direction and impact can be difficult to predict, especially in a large fire, said Jennifer McCully, public information officer for the Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency.

The presence of toxic substances heightens the already-major challenges of fighting wildfires, explained Rick Swan, director of Wildland Firefighting Safety and Response for the International Association of Fire Fighters. "Anytime you operate near any one of these [Superfund] sites, it's very noteworthy," he said. "The fire's probably the most simple thing that you have to worry about."

Kootenai has a 10-person contract crew trained to work in the operating unit, and a "modified response area" with specialized procedures around the unit.

Swan explained that of firefighters' main challenges in situations like these is respiratory protection.

“Our protocols in that [modified response] area are that if people are engaged in direct fire line construction … doing ground-disturbing acts, they wear the powered air purifying respirator, or PAPR," said Rose. Swan explained that these devices, when fitted with asbestos-filtering cartridges, can remove almost all harmful particulate matter.

After they leave the hazardous areas, Swan said, firefighters also have to take steps to prevent contamination from their gear. As the Flathead Beacon reported in 2015, Operable Unit 3's firefighters either dispose of their gear after a stint there, or reserve it for exclusive use there. Vehicles, tools and machinery get decontaminated.

The contract crew is joined on the fire by the Lolo Hotshot crew, Kootenai National Forest firefighters, and the Libby Rural Volunteer Fire Department, Rose said. In all, about 40 people are fighting.  

They’ve been laying hoses and digging machine lines, using a bulldozer, excavator and a tread-equipped vehicle called a skidgen. In addition, Rose said that seven helicopters are also assisting.

“With the [Kootenai] River right there, they’ve been very effective. They delivered 220,000 gallons of water yesterday.”

Rose said southwesterly winds forecast for Saturday are “our biggest concern with this fire.” Their goal “is to get things in a position before this afternoon, that if these winds do develop we’re able to contain it where it is and prevent that fire spread.”

Winslow and Rose said that the fires were about 300 yards from power lines on Friday, but that no other structures are threatened.

The Montana Department of Transportation has advised motorists that they should expect single-lane traffic on Montana Highway 37, about 3 miles north of its intersection with US Highway 2, as fire crews remove potentially hazardous trees from the area. The highway was closed for a time on Thursday.

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