From deep in the department of mixed blessings comes this tidbit: The smoky air isn’t any better for forest fires than it is for us.
“The smoke cover has kept fire activity down,” Sawtooth fire spokeswoman Sharma Hutchinson said Monday afternoon. “We’ve had little or no spread since yesterday. We’ve scaled way back.”
The Sawtooth fire has burned 5,962 acres in Sawtooth Canyon just west of Hamilton. But it’s a runt compared to the 1.45 million acres ablaze in Idaho, of which roughly 420,000 acres trace the Montana border between Lolo Pass and Darby. And it’s not helped by a cumulative 20,000 acres burning among 10 scattered wilderness fires in the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger District.
While the Sawtooth fire now employs 47 firefighters, four helicopters and three fire engines, the Mustang Complex just south of Lost Trail Pass maintains a camp of 501 people. It’s burned 336,082 acres since starting with a lightning strike on July 30. Crews there reported getting some light rain Monday afternoon, prompting the removal of hose networks along Salmon River Road and the U.S. Highway 93 corridor.
The smoke coming from those fires put Missoula Valley air quality solidly in the “unhealthy” category, with visibility less than 1.5 miles for most of the day. Breathing was slightly easier west toward Frenchtown. But the Bitterroot Valley ranked “very unhealthy,” with recommendations that all active children and adults avoid all outdoor exertion if possible.
“It’s still plenty smoky this evening, but we may continue to see improvements for the next several hours,” Missoula City-County air quality specialist Sarah Coefield said late Monday afternoon. “However, any smoke that sticks around will likely still be with us in the morning.”
The Idaho fires at McGuire (41,605 acres), Sheep (46,412 acres), Porcupine (30,738 acres), and Powell Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (52,000 acres) all contributed to the smoke load. So did Washington state’s Wenatchee Complex (52,637 acres) and Table Mountain fires (35,965 acres).
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On the Flathead Indian Reservation, fire prevention specialist Curt Matt said a ground crew would try a burnout operation along the Jocko Lookout Road on Monday to restrain the White Horse fire. That 586-acre blaze made a strong run Sunday and got within 300 yards of the Jocko Lookout in the South Jocko Tribal Wilderness.
The 65-acre Schley fire east of Arlee sent up some dramatic flares Sunday night, but did little expansion as it crept around some rocky outcrops, Matt said. The Molman fire east of Ronan has also held steady at 150 acres, with occasional active burning of fuel pockets.
Officials on the Condon Mountain fire issued a stage 1 evacuation notice for some Condon-area residents as the fire crept to within 1.5 miles of structures on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The fire now measures 4,240 acres and has 191 people assigned to fight it. It has been making runs into the Cooney Creek drainage on its southern flank and the Swan River Valley on the western flank.
Near Ovando, the Wedge Creek fire was threatening to creep into a heavily timbered basin near the head of Falls Creek. It grew about 5 acres in the past week to 1,730 acres total. The Falls Point fire nearby added 70 acres in the past few days near Driftwood Lake. It is currently measured at 372 acres. Both fires are patrolled by helicopter but not actively confronted.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.