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Dangerous fire conditions bolster western Montana blazes

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Moose fire map

The blaze had scorched more than 64,000 acres of the Salmon-Challis National Forest as of Thursday morning. 

Another day of fast winds, hot temperatures and dry air fanned the flames of several regional wildfires.

In the last seven days, the National Weather Service issued four red flag warning days for the western part of Montana, alerting to most potent conditions for current fires to expand and potential sparks to become wildfires.

Across much of central Idaho, western and central Montana, sustained winds reached 15 mph to 25 mph while gusts reached 30 mph to 40 mph on Thursday. High temperatures reached the 80s and 90s — a small break from triple-digit temperatures that could return to the forecast next week.

Fire danger on the Bitterroot National Forest is extreme, the highest of five levels. Fire danger is very high, the second-highest level, on the Lolo National Forest. Fire danger is extreme on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho.

Moose fire

The Moose fire, located 17 miles north of Salmon, Idaho, is expected to expand quickly as the fire inches closer to communities and infrastructure to the south.

The blaze had scorched more than 64,000 acres of the Salmon-Challis National Forest as of Thursday morning. At least seven structures, all minor out-buildings, have burned down. More than 350 single-family residences and one multi-unit residence are threatened.

A dry cold front passing through is expected to worsen conditions. Roughly 20% of the fire is contained.

The fire is threatening the Salmon municipal watershed, energy and mining infrastructure. The municipal watershed, which supplies area residents with water, is within 5 miles of the fire’s path.

“It’s paramount the watershed is protected, that’s a big concern for us,” said Gil Knight, public information officer for the Moose fire.

Great Basin Team 1, the largest Type I firefighting incident command unit, took control of the fire Aug. 3. More than 1,000 firefighters and 10 aircraft are battling the blaze. The Moose fire is one of the largest fires currently burning in the Lower 48 states.

Fire experts forecast winds will contribute to surface and crown fires with potential for large group tree torching. The fire is burning in steep, hazardous terrain that has been historically difficult for firefighters.

West winds with gusts as high as 48 mph could push the boundaries of the fire by a half-mile on the eastern flank by Friday.

A large spot fire has developed along a ridgeline just west of the Salmon River corridor near the community of Carmen, Idaho. Communities from Carmen to the north fork of the Salmon River are in pre-evacuation stages.

Salmon River Road is partially closed, with only residents, rafting outfitters and river users with float permits allowed to travel behind a pilot car. Highway 93 is still open.

Redhorn fire

No structures are threatened yet in the Redhorn fire, which reached 180 acres by Thursday in remote wilderness in the Mission Mountains. Fire officials are planning contingency lines in case the fire explodes in dry and windy conditions.

Sparked by a lightning strike on Monday, the blaze is burning in tribal wilderness on the west side of McDonald peak. It’s roughly 7 miles northeast as the bird flies from St. Ignatius.

There are no evacuations or closures, although the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes usually close the area through Oct. 1 to protect grizzly bear habitat.

A local Type III incident command team has responded to the scene, led by Art Trahan and Richard Fisher. In total, 42 people are monitoring the fire. Firefighters reported intense fire activity with group tree torching, up-slope runs and short range spotting on Wednesday. Aircraft will be used as conditions allow to limit the spread of the fire.

More aggressive fire spread is expected under the red flag warning Thursday. Fire staff are scouting and assessing contingency lines south of McDonald Lake and North of Ashley Lake.

Hog Trough fire

Located in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, firefighters expect the Hog Trough fire to grow to the northwest and southeast. Active fire behavior pushed the burn, 17 miles northwest of Hamilton, closer to the edge of a 2005 Signal Rock wildfire scar it sparked in.

Northern Rockies Team 5, a Type II incident command team, took control of operations Wednesday night. More than 300 firefighters are on scene, with a goal of containing the fire to the wilderness area.

The fire is 749 acres in size and not threatening any structures, but triggered the closing of several Forest Service roads near Skalkaho Highway, which remains open. Fire crews plan to make containment lines on the closest roads to prevent spread out of the wilderness area.

Other crews cut handlines along ridges to prevent the fire from jumping Highway 38. Helicopters doused hot spots with water buckets on the west and northwest flames of the fire.

Weasel fire

Located 14 miles northeast of Eureka, lightning sparked the Weasel fire in a wooded area near the convergence of the Canadian border and Flathead and Lincoln counties.

At least 160 acres of forested area have burned, causing firefighters to close Big Therriault and Little Therriault campgrounds. A Type III team has taken control of the fire, and 74 personnel have joined firefighting efforts.

Fire weather experts predicted moderate fire behavior with tree torching and small spotting. The team hopes to control the fire line along Road #114. Firefighters also successfully protected the historic Weasel Cabin with fire-resistant wrapping on Aug. 2.

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