Gusty winds and high temperatures expected through Sunday made for an increasingly hazy opening game for the Grizzlies as smoke crept back into the Missoula Valley after two days of relief.
Air quality deteriorated in the valley Saturday morning, reaching levels considered Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, while air in the Seeley Lake area remained Hazardous. A high-pressure system moving into the area will likely hold smoke in the valleys over the weekend, and temperatures are expected to top out near 100 degrees in Missoula this weekend.
The Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires grew by a combined total of almost 5,000 acres between Friday and Saturday despite favorable conditions for firefighting efforts.
Taking advantage of the weather at the Lolo Peak fire on Friday, helicopter crews started small, controlled fires south of One Horse Creek to slow the advance of the fire down the southern slope. Fire officials said Saturday that crews would continue strengthening control-burned lines to protect private land from the fire.
Midday winds and rising temperatures led to some increased activity on the fire, but it was mainly flare-ups well within the perimeter of the fire, officials said.
In the Bitterroot, the only remaining Lolo Peak evacuation warnings are in the Bear Creek and Elk Creek areas on Highway 12 east of Lolo, and along Highway 93 south of Lolo from McClain Creek Road to Bass Creek Road.
Fire activity increased on the Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake on Saturday afternoon. The combination of low relative humidity, high temperatures, high winds and "extremely dry fuels" led to spotting outside of the fire's perimeter.
The southern portion of the 40,164-acre fire put up a smoke column that was visible from Seeley Lake. That area of the fire is spreading east/northeast back toward the main body of the fire. The southeastern area of the fire is experiencing significant spotting due to the westerly winds.
The Sprague fire, which consumed the historic Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park on Thursday, grew 470 acres Friday, and closed a handful of trails in the park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road remains open, but the Avalanche Lake Trail is closed, along with connecting trails coming from the Lake McDonald Trailhead and Gunsight Lake area.
The fire is burning in high elevations — areas not usually capable of sustaining high-intensity fires, according to reports on the federal wildfire information website, InciWeb.
A shift in winds expected on Sunday prompted pre-emptive plans to close the Sprague Creek and Avalanche campgrounds around noon on Sunday, though they will remain open Saturday night. The Lake McDonald Lodge is closed for the season, and some scheduled operations, including horseback tours and boat rides have been adjusted due to smoky conditions.
The Liberty fire burning 17 miles southeast of Arlee became more active along the northwestern and northern portions of the firelines, growing slightly to 15,545 acres. Resources are being shifted around to hold the fire in place along the northwestern containment line, officials said.
The Sheep Gap fire, started by lightning on Tuesday, has burned 2,242 acres and has forced the Sanders County Sheriff's Office to implement evacuation procedures. The evacuation covers all private residences from the corner of the road on the River Road West in Section 11, T20N, R27W west to the end of River Road West. The evacuation plan was activated at noon on Saturday and residents were asked to be clear of the area by 6 p.m.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at the Plains Alliance Church in response to evacuations.
A public meeting on the Sheep Gap, Deep Creek and other fires under Kootenai National Forest and DNRC jurisdiction, which will be managed by the incoming Fire Management Team, will be held at the Plains High School gymnasium at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Caribou fire, 21 miles northwest of Eureka, also prompted evacuation warnings for all areas of West Kootenai, Inciweb reported.
The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office has issued an additional evacuation order for the West Kootenai North and South zones, Inciweb reported Saturday night. The evacuation orders affect the communities of Dodge Creek, Spring Creek and West Kootenai. Residents have been asked to leave immediately.
The Red Cross has emergency services in the Church of God in Eureka.
Approximately 400 structures are threatened. Crews are working with heavy equipment along Road 303, north of Young’s Creek. Structure protection assessment began Saturday for West Kootenai starting with the Spring Creek area. Residents can expect to see fire personnel and engines in the area.
The fire has covered 6,781 acres and is 0 percent contained.