Wildfires worth fighting burned Wednesday from Interstate 90 north almost to the Canadian border.
An unnamed fire slowed interstate traffic four miles west of Alberton near the Cyr exit shortly after 3 p.m.
Mel Holtz of the Frenchtown Rural Fire department said when firefighters arrived homeowners with shovels were trying to put it out in defense of a threatened house.
“It was several hundred yards from the structure, by the interstate, so no one could reach it with hoses,” Holtz said.
The wind whipped the fire to five acres, but multiple Frenchtown Fire and Forest Service units were able to secure a line around the home.
By 5 p.m. the fire was contained, though it was still putting up a column of smoke. It burned near a two-way interstate construction zone, and the Montana Department of Transportation reported traffic was backed up while alternating through a single lane. Responding units had a difficult time getting to the scene.
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“If you see emergency lights, please slow down and let the resources get through,” Holtz said.
The cause of the fire wasn't known, but there’ve been a number of human starts recently and a concerted campaign by agencies to stop them.
“It’s a critical time for us,” said Holtz. “We’re going into very dry conditions in western Montana.”
Indeed, the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for Thursday from noon until 10 p.m. for all of western Montana. A dry cold front will bring increasing westerly winds of 15 to 20 mph, with gusts to near 35 mph. Humidity values will be as low as 10 percent to 20 percent.
Crews from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are dealing with two troublesome fires in far different ways.
The Walk-In fire five miles northeast of St. Ignatius showed itself on Tuesday a third of the way up a slope of the Mission Mountains below McDonald Peak.
It’s in an area with lots of downed timber and the smoke is visible from the valley floor, though the fire was still just a quarter of an acre in size.
“We’ve got six people on it, but they’re coming out every night because of the grizzly bear danger up there,” said Jim “Buttercup” Clairmont of the CSKT’s Division of Fires.
The Garden Creek fire is burning in steep and rocky terrain near a mountaintop northeast of Hot Springs. It grew from five acres to eight on Wednesday, but Clairmont said tribal firefighters were about to make it bigger with a burnout.
“It’s probably going to end up around 20 acres,” he said at midafternoon.
A fire line blaster was used Tuesday to blast a line around most of the fire.
“But it keeps burning right up to (the line),” Clairmont said. “There’s a lot of duff and it burns quite active in spots.”
A number of fires flared up after a lightning storm passed through the Flathead Reservation last weekend, including five in the Rainbow Lake area south of Hot Springs and another south of Dixon.
“Everything else has been pretty much extinguished,” said Clairmont. “We’re just patrolling to make sure nothing pops up on them.”
Farther north, Stage 1 fire restrictions were in place in Lincoln County and the Kootenai National Forest, and were set to go into effect on Friday in Sanders County as well as some Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lands.
Two new starts east of Montana Highway 37 and Lake Koocanusa brought to 23 the number on the Kootenai forest since Saturday’s lightning bust.
The Inch fire and nearby Warex Peak fire on the Rexford/Fortine Ranger District were discovered Wednesday afternoon. Each was about one-tenth of an acre. A 20-person hand crew was leading the battle against the 20-acre Tenmile fire in the same vicinity. Public information officer Shawn Ray-Delmas said crews expected to have the fire fully lined by the end of the day.
The 11-acre Feeder fire was 70 percent contained by an initial attack crew and miscellaneous fire personnel from the local forest.
Nine trails and part of Forest Service road 92 were closed in the vicinity of the Northwest Peak Scenic Area as fire crews battled western Montana’s biggest fire. The three-day-old Davis fire northwest of Yaak grew from 177 acres to 215 in dense subalpine fir.
A Northern Rockies Type 2 incident management team assumed control of the Davis fire and the Porcupine fire, northeast of Yaak and west of Rexford, which grew slightly to 22 acres. Heavy equipment will be used to gain access to the two fires.
Fire crews on the Porcupine fire built a rough line around it on Tuesday and spent Wednesday strengthening and improving the line.
A public meeting will be held at the Yaak Fire Station at 7 p.m. Thursday to present information and answer questions about both the Davis and Porcupine fires.
For the second day, smoke from fires in states to the west dimmed the sun throughout western Montana.
“Wildfire smoke season 2018 is officially upon us,” announced Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department.
In a morning press release, Coefield said the air the past couple of days looked worse than it was. Air quality has been Good to Moderate in Missoula County all week.
It remained in the Moderate range throughout the region Wednesday afternoon, though Coefield warned it could deteriorate to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups as the smoke came down to the valley floor.
“Based on upper elevation wind patterns, we’re likely to continue to see smoke from Oregon and California headed our way into Thursday,” she said.
But the high-pressure ridge that’s pushing smoke into Montana will start breaking down on Thursday.
“The West Coast smoke should be south of us by Friday. A dry cold front is set to arrive Thursday afternoon, and the strong winds on Thursday and Friday should do a good job scouring the valleys clear of West Coast smoke remnants,” said Coefield.
But the winds bring their own set of problems.
“Dry cold fronts are pretty scary during fire season,” she said. “If we get lightning or have any fires start before the cold front gets here, we could end up with active fire behavior.
“Fortunately, we do not currently have any significant nearby fires to be stirred up by the front, but it’s something to keep in mind. Be very careful while out and about — make sure you aren’t dragging any chains, do not flick cigarette butts out your vehicle window, and if you have a campfire, make sure it is dead out before you walk away from it. I mean, stick your hand in that puppy. Roll it all around in the ash. If you don’t want to do that with your dead campfire, it’s not dead enough.”
You can track the smoke the health department sees on its monitors by going to the Montana’s Today’s Air website at http://svc.mt.gov/deq/todaysair/.