Surrounding fires fill valley with smoke
By Michael Howell
A weather front ushered in blustery winds and Red Flag conditions to the area last Saturday that continued through Monday, fanning fires across the area into renewed activity. Thick layers of smoke filled the valley and air quality deteriorated to unhealthy conditions.
The Lolo Peak Fire flared up and even jumped a containment line on its northwestern border. Spot fires that jumped the line grew to cover a 300-acre area outside the containment lines on Monday with the potential to threaten Highway 12. According to fire information officials, they are looking for the best options for cutting it off before it gets close to the highway. The winds, which were not as bad as predicted, were expected to subside by Monday evening.
On the southeastern flank of the fire along the Highway 93 corridor, the fire continued to march southward. By Monday the fire had crossed into the upper part of the Sweeney Creek drainage and was expected to grow further into the drainage in succeeding days. A burnout at the bottom of the drainage was being considered if conditions are appropriate.
On Sunday, Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton issued an evacuation order for all residents west of Highway 93 on the north side of Bass Creek Road north to residents on the south side of Hannaford Avenue and west of Florence-Carlton Loop, approximately 200 homes. Access to the area was denied due to extreme fire behavior. Escorts into the area were provided on Monday morning for quick (15 minute) return visits, but due to unrelenting winds and extreme fire behavior, access was once again curtailed by 1:30 in the afternoon. However, the evacuation order was lifted on Tuesday and on Wednesday, Sheriff Steve Holton said that due to the continued good work by Doug Turman’s Northern Rockies Type 1 Incident Management Team, the evacuation warnings from the north side of Tie Chute Lane north to West County Line Road had been rescinded and all residents could repopulate the area with no warnings or orders in effect. The area west of Hwy 93 from the south side of Tie Chute Lane to the north side of South Kootenai Creek Road remains in an evacuation warning status and those residents should continue to be prepared to evacuate. Fire Information can be obtained at the Public Information booths located at the Florence Farmer’s State Bank and Stevensville Super One parking lots.
The Lolo Peak Fire was started by lightning on July 15 and has now burned more than 45,000 acres. The fire was very active overnight from Sunday to Monday due to a strong thermal belt. Torching sub-alpine fir trees caused spot fires on the western edge of the fire that grew to a 300-acre area outside of the primary containment line. Indirect lines were being identified, constructed and used to contain this new fire edge. The uncontained fire has the potential to move toward Highway 12. The fire moved approximately 3 miles to the east in the North Fork of Sweeney Creek. Helicopters dropped retardant on the ridge to check the fire at the mouth of Sweeney Creek and as of Monday evening, firefighters were successful in holding that line.
Monitor and patrol status continues on the north and northeast sides of the fire. Mop up began in the One Horse drainage and preparations for burnout operations were completed in Sweeney Creek. The burnout will connect previously burned areas forming a continuous buffer along the southeast side of the fire.
Suppression repair work continues to repair areas damaged during earlier phases of fire control efforts. Members of the National Guard are present to support the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department in providing security at the existing road blocks.
On Monday, crews were focusing on Upper and Lower Sweeney Creek while they continue to assess areas for opportunities to mitigate risk and engage in suppression activities to stay ahead of the interior fire front. The public may see isolated tree torching from deep inside the fire line as wind kicks up flames that consume unburned pockets of fuel. Air support for the fire will be limited due poor visibility until the inversion lifts.
The evacuation warning has been lifted in the Highway 12 corridor from mile marker 24 (near and including Arena Drive) to the Highway 93 junction in Lolo. The evacuation warning was also lifted for residents in the Highway 93 corridor from the Highway 12 junction to mile marker 79 (near and including the Gravel Pit off of Old Highway 93 and the McClain Creek Road). Highway 12 remained open as of Monday evening.
The American Red Cross of Montana opened a shelter in Stevensville on Sunday following the new Lolo Peak wildfire evacuations. The shelter is located at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 100 Middle Burnt Fork Road in Stevensville. All evacuees are welcome at the shelter, and all Red Cross services are free.
In other fire news, as of Monday an evacuation warning remained in effect on East Fork Road from FS Rd 5778 to Little East Fork Rd (FS RD 724) east of Sula on the Bitterroot National Forest for the 53,700+ acre Meyers Fire which started on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest on July 14 and has spread west onto the Bitterroot National Forest. Those under an evacuation warning should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
Residents on Nez Perce Road at the southwest end of the valley that had been evacuated due to the Nelson Creek Fire were allowed to return home on September 1 but remain under a warning status. Nez Perce Road is currently open at this time so motorists can now access the Magruder Road Corridor between Darby, MT and Elk City, ID.
Many other fires are contributing to the extremely smoky conditions and poor air quality in the Bitterroot Valley, including the 8500-acre Hidden Fire west of Victor in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho, the 100,000-acre Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake, the 26,000-acre Sunrise Fire near Superior, the 42,000-acre Sapphire Complex near Rock Creek, and many more in Montana, Idaho and other western states.
On Monday, Governor Steve Bullock issued the following statement regarding fire conditions in Montana.
“We are facing a very challenging and unprecedented fire season in Montana and throughout the West. Lisa and my thoughts and prayers are with our neighbors whose homes and businesses are being affected, and with the brave men and women who are doing an incredible job protecting Montanans and fighting these fires.
“The reality is Montana is in a severe drought and the conditions are ripe for continued severe fires throughout September. Local, state and federal partners are working together to ensure we are and will continue to use every available resource to fight these fires.
“This has been a long and incredibly difficult fire season and conditions this week will continue to be challenging. Everyone – residents, visitors, volunteers – must continue to stay safe, stay informed, and continue to support our firefighters, our communities, and businesses impacted by fires.”
Governor Bullock declared a drought emergency on June 23, 2017, a drought disaster on July 19, 2017, a fire emergency on July 24, 2017, an updated fire emergency on August 11, 2017, an updated drought disaster on August 18, 2017, and a fire disaster on September 1, 2017.
Bullock’s latest fire disaster declaration allows him to continue to mobilize additional state resources and the Montana National Guard to combat fires. The latest Executive Order was issued in conjunction with a directive to the Montana Department of Transportation that temporarily suspends certain regulatory requirements to facilitate the transport of heavy firefighting equipment.
The State remains in regular communication with officials from FEMA regarding possible assistance that can support state and local firefighting costs of businesses and individuals impacted by fires.
Motorists are reminded not to stop along the highways to view fire activity. It creates a significant traffic hazard, impedes firefighter traffic, and impacts the safety of firefighters and citizens.
The Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) for the Lolo Peak Fire remains in effect. The restriction includes “drones” or unmanned aerial vehicles. If drones are detected, air operations stop. If you see a drone in the fire area, including the evacuation areas, report it immediately to 406-272-5433.