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Eric Whitney

News Director

Eric Whitney is the news director for Montana Public Radio.

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Lolo area residents gather at an incident command site Friday, August 18 as evening winds stoke the Lolo Peak Fire.
Beau Baker

Forecasters are predicting a couple more relatively calm days on the Lolo Peak Fire southwest of Missoula. This after firefighters and communities from Lolo south to Florence faced their most severe test when the fire grew explosively Friday night, eating up 9,000 acres in a single day.

We’ll have more on what firefighters are expecting in a moment, but for now, let’s go back to Friday night when MTPR’s Beau Baker was reporting from the junction of Highways 12 and 93.

Map of the Lolo Peak Fire generated via infrared sensing flight, current as of Sunday morning, August 20
Eric Whitney

Fire crews are expecting a calmer day on the Lolo Peak Fire today. Mike Cole, a fire information officer with the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team gave us this update about 9:00 am Sunday.  

"Saturday was a very good day and today we expect another one," Cole says.

The east side of the Lolo Peak Fire, via a map generated by an infrared flight early Saturday morning
Eric Whitney

Fire Information Officer Bill Queen says the Lolo Peak Fire only jumped the primary containment line in one place last night, in the Maple Creek drainage. But he says no additional homes or structures were lost last night. The fire grew by about 9,000 acres last night, and it's total size is now 27,906 acres. 

We will update this post with additional information as it becomes available. 

Smoke from the Lolo Peak Fire seen from Missoula on the evening of August 16, 2017.
Anne Hosler

This afternoon, the evacuation order area for the Lolo Peak Fire has been extended south in the Highway 93 corridor. The area currently under evacuation order is on the west side of Highway 93, and now extends South from mile marker 78 all the way to Tie Chute Lane.

There is also a new evacuation warning area from Tie Chute Lane south to Bass Creek Road.

Evacuees check in with Missoula County Sheriff's Department Staff in Lolo Wednesday night
Eric Whitney

Update: 9:50: This from the Missoula County Sheriff's Office: "Due to the recent fire activity, evacuation passes need to be postponed until further notice.

The Lolo Peak Fire plume seen from Florence The Lolo Peak Fire plume seen from Florence about 8:00 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2017.8:00 pm Wednesday night
Eric Whitney

There’s a new evacuation order in the Lolo and Traveler’s Rest area issued by the Missoula County Sheriff's Office.

This is an evacuation order, not a warning, that includes portions of the Highway 93 and Highway 12 corridors.

Sarah Coefield from the Missoula City-County Health Department talks about the hazards of the smoke in Seeley Lake at a public meeting Thursday, August 10, 2017.
Eric Whitney

About 250 people filled most of the bleachers at Seeley Lake elementary school Thursday night to get the latest update on the Rice Ridge fire.

Somewhat unusual for a fire meeting was for the crowd to hear from someone from the county health department about air quality concerns, but Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with Missoula City-County Health, said smoke pollution levels have repeatedly hit hazardous levels.

Extremely unhealthy air has prompted the health department to recommend that people should leave Seeley Lake, or at least try to sleep somewhere else. This view of the smoke from Seeley Lake was captured on the afternoon of August 10, 2017.
Eric Whitney

Wednesday, Missoula County's health department made the unprecedented recommendation that an entire town, Seeley Lake, evacuate because of pollution from wildfire smoke. Eric Whitney has more on where that recommendation came from, and how it's being received.

Divers with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Montana FWP prepare to dive at Tiber Dam to look for adult zebra and/or quagga mussels, August 7, 2017.
Beth Saboe - MontanaPBS

Scuba divers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have spent the past three days in north-central Montana, scouring the waters of Tiber Dam for any signs of aquatic invasive mussels.

Last October, a juvenile mussel was found in a water sample from Tiber Reservoir by the Bureau of Reclamation, and suspicious samples were discovered in Canyon Ferry Reservoir, near Townsend. Since then, the state has ramped up its efforts to stave off a potentially destructive infestation of non-native quaqqa and zebra mussels.

Montana’s Supreme Court has ordered Attorney General Tim Fox to respond to the American Civil Liberties Union’s complaint about the language of a so-called "bathroom privacy" ballot initiative.

On Monday the court gave Fox 20 days to explain why the ballot language his office wrote for the initiative being promoted by the Montana Family Foundation is fair and accurate.

Rovero's gas station and hardware store was abuzz with activity Tuesday
Eric Whitney

As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, firefighters were having an easier day on the Rice Ridge Fire than Tuesday. The cold front that moved in overnight moderated temperatures and raised humidity levels. That's according to Mark DeGregorio, a spokesman for the Rice Ridge firefighting team. 

"The fire behavior I think could be characterized as moderate today," DeGregorio said, "certainly more moderate than it was yesterday."

Predicted high winds overnight Tuesday into Wednesday did not materialize in Seeley Lake, but Tuesday was still a pretty scary day, as the entire town was put on an evacuation warning due to the Rice Ridge Fire.

A super scooper plane loads up at Seeley Lake on the evening of August 1, while fighting the Rice Ridge Fire visible in the background.
Eric Whitney

Half boat, half plane, the super scooper glides over the water's surface and guzzles up to 1,200 gallons of water in 10 seconds, then drops its load on a fire. A tiny propeller plane flies nearby to give navigation and water deployment tips. Seeley Lake was closed to swimmers, boaters and fisher-people on the evening of August 1 to give this plane space to work as it lapped trips over the Rice Ridge Fire, visible in the background, which has put the nearby community on an evacuation warning.

This map shows spending on health care services via Medicaid expansion by county since January, 2016
Montana DPHHS

A new report says that Medicaid expansion has saved Montana more than $30 million in its first 18 months.

"Medicaid expansion continues to be a stunning success for Montana," said Shiela Hogan, director of Montana's Department of Health and Human Services. "There's no denying this."

In the Whetstone Ridge Fire area in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest
InciWeb

Updated 6:20 p.m.

The Sunrise Fire between Alberton and Superior grew by about 2,000 acres yesterday. It’s now burning an estimated 8,200 acres and is about 5 percent contained.

Early Sunday evening the Mineral County Sheriff issued an early-evening evacuation order for residents in the Verde Creek area. The Quartz Creek, Sunrise Creek and Quartz Flats areas were evacuated last week.

Public information officer Megan Nemitz says smoke is creating additional challenges, but that crews have been able to make some progress protecting the roughly 80 structures under threat.

Hundreds showed up to testify in Helena against cuts to Medicaid, July 27, 2017.
Eric Whitney

"These are no doubt difficult times."

That’s Sheila Hogan, the head of Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services Thursday. She was kicking off a hearing on a planned cut to how much the department will pay doctors, hospitals and other health workers who take care of people on Medicaid.

A helicopter working the Goat Creek Fire yesterday
InciWeb

Updated 2:10 pm

The Mineral County Sheriff's Office has issued a Stage 3 Evacuation Order for Quartz Creek. Occupants of the affected area are asked to leave immediately. This proactive order is being issued considering the fire creeping down towards Quartz Creek, winds predicted to increase this afternoon, and to allow occupants enough time vacate the area. 

Stage 3 Evacuation Order Area now includes:
Sunrise Creek
Quartz Flats
Quartz Creek

Stage 2 Evacuation Warning includes:
Verde Creek 

William Buck, who owns Shepherd's Way assisted living facility in Lewistown says planned cuts to Medicaid would be "devastating."
Eric Whitney

Hundreds of people packed an auditorium in Helena Thursday to protest planned cuts to Medicaid.

"This 3.47 percent cut is devastating," says William Buck, who owns Shepherd's Way assisted living facility in Lewistown.

InciWeb

Updated 1:00 p.m.

On the Sunrise Fire between Alberton and Superior: Yesterday at about 6:00 pm the Mineral County Sheriff moved both Quartz Flats and Sunrise communities into a stage 3 evacuation. A stage 3 evacuation means that the residents in those areas need to leave the area immediately. Additionally, the Sheriff moved the Verde Creek residents into stage 2, which means that those residents need to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

Today at about 11:00 am, the Lolo National Forest issued A stage 1 evacuation notice for the Rivulet area. Stage 1 means to stay alert and keep informed of the fire.

Fire camp sunset on the Sunrise Fire 7/24/17
InciWeb

Yesterday at about 6:00 pm the Mineral County Sheriff moved both Quartz Flats and Sunrise communities into a stage 3 evacuation. A stage 3 evacuation means that the residents in those areas need to leave the area immediately. Additionally, the Sheriff moved the Verde Creek residents into stage 2, which means that those residents need to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

Today at about 11:00 am, the Lolo National Forest issued A stage 1 evacuation notice for the Rivulet area. Stage 1 means to stay alert and keep informed of the fire.

The three biggest health insurance companies in Montana met with state insurance commissioner Matt Rosendale Wednesday to explain their price increases for 2018.

Sand Springs on Highway 200 July 21, looking west-northwest through smoke from the Lodgepole Complex.
Chris Barth, BLM

Updated 6:30 p.m.

Crews tackling the Lolo Peak fire have switched from hand tools to heavy logging equipment to quicken the construction of a control line in the highway 12 corridor. Public Information Officer Mike Cole says the roughly 1000-acre fire in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness is expected to eventually move down slope and this line will create a barrier for homes abutting national forest land.

Sen. Jon Tester.
PD

Montana’s senators on Tuesday took opposite votes on whether to begin debate on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

The Goat Creek Fire from St. Mary Peak Sunday
Rob Saldin

Updated 4:10 pm

In Lolo tonight, there’s a public meeting at Lolo Elementary at 7 p.m. about the Lolo Peak fire. Another meeting on the fire is scheduled for the same time Tuesday at Stevensville High School.

A satellite photo showing the Lodgepole complex fires in Montana.
NASA

On Sunday, Governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in Montana because of wildfires. MTPR's Eric Whitney spoke to him Monday afternoon about what that means on the ground.

Gov. Steve Bullock.
Freddy Monares - UM Legislative News Service

An automatic state budget cut could pull tens of millions of dollars out of the state firefighting fund as early as Tuesday.

During the legislative session earlier this year state lawmakers approved a bill that triggers budget cuts based on how much revenue is coming in.

Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Matthew Rosendale.
Montana Legislature

Later today in Billings State Auditor Matt Rosendale is holding the first of two meetings to get public input on proposed health insurance prices for 2018.

The state has some regulatory authority over health plans sold to individuals and small groups, that’s about 114,000 people in Montana. That authority allows the state auditor to review, but not reject proposed prices by insurance companies.

InciWeb

Today fire managers in Lewis and Clark County said firefighters and a helicopter responded to a new fire ten miles northeast of Lincoln in the Alice Creek drainage. It is estimated at 15 acres in size, with zero percent containment.

From the Goat Creek Fire incident management team
InciWeb

There are now more large wildfires burning in Montana than any other state. At least 18 large fires are consuming both forests and grasslands in eastern and western Montana.

That’s according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which says, “critical fire weather conditions are expected across the northwestern U.S."

File photo
Eric Whitney

There will be a Community Meeting Tomorrow for the Whetstone Ridge & Myers Fires. Representatives from the Goat Creek, Little Hogback, and Sliderock Fires will be presenting an update on those fires. The meeting is set for 7:00 p.m. at the Philipsburg School located at 407 Schnepel St. in Philipsburg, Montana.

There will be a public meeting for the Lolo Peak Fire on Monday, July 24, at 7:00 p.m. in the gymnasium at the Lolo Elementary School.

An interactive map of the fire can be found here.

Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock, right, and employees at a press conference at the company's Missoula facility Thursday
Eric Whitney

At a press conference Thursday, Mike Wheelock, the president of the company that employed 19-year-old firefighter Trenton Johnson was visibly shaken while giving details of the accident that killed Johnson on Wednesday.

"We just ask that you keep the family in your prayers, and the fellow workers, and all the firefighters that are out there right now on the line," he said, choking up. 

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