Montana Wildfire Roundup For September 7, 2017

Sep 7, 2017

Governor Steve Bullock Thursday asked FEMA for additional funding to fight the wildfires that have now burned over a million acres across the state.

Bullock sat down with Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Thursday, in Washington D.C.

Back in Montana, 700,000 acres of land is currently on fire.

According to the Governor’s office, Bullock asked Long to hurry the review and approval of additional grant requests to pay for firefighting in the state. The governor also asked FEMA leaders to consider allowing Montana to apply fire cost grants across multiple fires.

To date, FEMA has issued two of these grants for the Lodgepole Complex Fire and the Lolo Peak fire. The Fire Management Assistance Grants provide a 75 percent federal cost share for firefighting costs.

A FEMA official in Denver pointed any questions about the specifics of the Governor’s meeting today with the FEMA administrator, back to Governor Bullock's office.

This year’s firefighting efforts have cost Montana more than $57 million.  That’s drained the state's 32 million dollars fire reserve fund and an additional $16 million in other emergency funds.

West Fork Fire, NW of Libby

Fire managers report that burnout operations on the West Fork Fire outside Libby are going as expected this afternoon.

"We’re preparing for this wind event coming on Saturday, it will give us enough time to clean up and extinguish all the hot spots and that will be a good black line between the active fire and the residents in the Bobtail Road area," says Shawna Hartman, a public information officer on the fire.

Last night’s evacuation orders are still in place. When they were issued, emergency officials said they
hope to have people back in their homes by Sunday. Those orders cover:

  • Kootenai River Road from Quarts Creek to end of Bighorn Terrace
  • North side of Kootenai River Road from North Central to Quartz Creek
  • Lower Bobtail, including Burrell and Indian Pipe

Caribou and Gibraltar Ridge Fires near Eureka

Heavy smoke and a high pressure system will continue to moderate fire behavior. There is a chance of scattered showers and thunderstorms Friday to Saturday night.

Caribou Fire: Yesterday, fire crews and heavy equipment improved the fireline to the west and north, while joining lines to the south. Overall, there are 4 miles of fireline on the east side of the fire up to the Canadian border. Crews are working on clearing line on the west end near Blacktail Creek to the north. Previous days’ cooler temperatures and lighter winds reduced fire activity.

Today, structure protection crews will continue to improve the fireline southeast and north of West Kootenai, and improve fire line south of the community. Firefighers are constructing direct fire line west of Road 303 toward Marias Mountain. Additional ground and air resources have been assigned to the fire, but aircraft will not be able to fly until smoke clears and visibility improves.

Caribou Evacuations: A full Evacuation Order is in effect for West Kootenai area north of Tooley Lake.
A Pre-evacuation Warning is in effect for the West Kootenai area south of Tooley Lake, and the Basin Creek area.

Gibralter Ridge Fire: Yesterday’s inversion and cooler weather caused the fire to be less active. As the fire slowly backs down William’s Creek, crews will continually evaluate its growth. Crews continue to patrol and mop-up around Graves Creek. Structure crews have placed sprinklers and continue to patrol in the pre-evacuation area.

Gibralter Ridge Evacuations: A Pre-Evacuation Warning remains in effect for the Sherman Creek, Griffith Creek, Therriault Pass Road, Stevens Creek, Glen Lake and Sinclair Creek (south/east of West Road) areas.

Lolo Peak Fire

The evacuation warning for residents north of Tie Chute Lane has been rescinded. Evacuation warnings remain in place south of Hwy 12 in the Elk, Bear and Graves Creek areas as well as west of Hwy 93 between Tie Chute Lane south to South Kootenai Creek Road. No evacuation orders are currently in place.

The inversion and low visibility due to smoke halted air operations yesterday and likely again today. Heavy equipment and ground crews were successful in cleaning up a 120 acre burnout operation on the north slope of Bass Creek and gained ground on hot spots in the northwestern edge of the fire near Elk Meadows Road. Suppression repair work continued on the north side of the fire. Structure assessments are complete.

Conditions today should allow for burnout operations south of Bass Creek. Burnout operations create a buffer from high intensity fire impacting residences and other high value resources. Crews are finishing up a line south of Kootenai Creek that ties into the 2009 Kootenai fire area. Dozer line, sprinkler sets and mop up will continue along Elk Meadows Road. Suppression repair work will continue elsewhere around the fire.

East Fork Fire, South of Havre

The Hill County Sheriff’s Department has lifted the evacuation order on Sucker Creek Road and Taylor Roads allowing property owners to return to these areas. Sucker Creek Road has been opened to local residents; the public is urged to stay out of the area due to heavy equipment and emergency personnel still working in the area. Highway 234 will remain closed from Taylor Road south. Beaver Creek Park and all side roads within the park remain closed to recreation.

Yesterday firefighters continued to patrol, secure and mop up along containment lines. They successfully located and extinguished hotspots in the Clear Creek and southern Little Box Elder Creek. While firefighters continue to make good progress, heat still remains in the heavy fuels of the Little Box Elder Canyon and the timber stringers along the canyon. Helicopter water drops were used to extinguish hot spots in these areas.

While the majority of the fire perimeter in now contained, firefighters continued to patrol and improve these lines as needed. Work to insure hotspots in Mooney Coulee have been extinguished also continued. In many places along the fireline where containment had been achieved, suppression repair efforts either continued or began. Night shift patrolled the fire line to insure the fire stayed within containment lines.

Firefighters will once again work in Little Box Elder Canyon where heavy fuels continue to hold heat. In Mooney Coulee, crews will continue mopping up near structures as needed. The remaining portions of the fire perimeter that are contained will be patrolled and improved and suppression repair will continue where needed. Even as fire containment is increasing, smoke may be seen from unburned pockets of fuels burning in the interior of the fire. These unburned pockets are no threat to the fire perimeter.

Rice Ridge Fire, NE of Seeley Lake

Yesterday the inversion did not lift over the fire area, so no aircraft could be used due to lack of visibility caused by the smoke. However, the shade created by the thick smoke subdued fire activity and allowed firefighters to construct fire line directly on the active fire’s edge on the northwest corner of the fire south of Camp Creek. The Flathead Hotshots worked with 2 dozers until 2 am this morning (Thursday) on a particularly troublesome area where they are trying to lock in the northwest corner of the fire. The smoke also allowed firefighters to do mop up on many of the areas along the fire line immediately east of the town of Seeley Lake. Several areas of concern remain along this section of fire line at Findell Creek, Murphy Creek and the spruce bog in Morrell Creek. An excavator being used to remove heavy downfall in the spruce bog area had limited success. Two heavy equipment groups continued to work towards each other between Seeley Lake and Monture Cabin along Forest Road 477, constructing shaded fuel breaks using feller bunchers as they progressed. Mop up continued in the Monture Cabin area and structure protection continued around cabins in the Coopers Lake area. A structure protection specialist began assessments around the Placid Lake area to begin planning in anticipation of any movement of the Liberty fire to the east. Fire managers met with their counterparts from the Park Creek fire to coordinate operations as these fires grow closer together. Due to smoke, firefighters were unable to fly into and wrap the Carmichael Cabin. Night operations continued.

The inversion is expected to lift later today, creating increased fire activity as the fire is exposed to more direct sunlight. One area of concern for increased fire activity will be on the northwest corner of the fire where spotting across the line has been a problem. The Flathead Hotshots and the Prescott Hotshots will finish work south of Camp Creek and, working with two dozers, move into the Findell Creek and Murphy Creek drainages north of Seeley Lake. Firefighters will continue to hold, mop up and improve line on the Seeley Lake side of the fire, including the use of a feller buncher in the spruce bog area of Morrell Creek, another area of concern. Shaded fuel break construction using feller bunchers will continue along Forest Service Road 477 towards the Monture Cabin area. Heavy equipment will also be used to link roads to indirect fire line being constructed across private lands south and east from Monture Cabin. Structure protection will continue around Coopers Lake. Firefighters from Seeley Lake Ranger District will try again to be flown in to wrap the Carmichael Cabin in the upper North Fork of the Blackfoot River near McDonnell Meadow northeast of the fire. Firefighters are coordinating heavy equipment fire line construction with the Park Creek fire to the east as these fires grow closer together. Preliminary structure assessment will continue around the Placid Lake area west of Seeley Lake in order to be prepared ahead of time in the event that the Liberty fire tries to move towards that area.

There will be a Community Meeting tonight, September 7, in Seeley Lake at the Mission Bible Fellowship Church, 3158 Hwy 83, 6 p.m. This meeting will be live-streamed on the Lolo National Forest's Facebook page.

Alice Creek Fire, NE of Lincoln

Today, firefighters will see a wind shift from the northeast which will push the fire southwest. Across the northern and eastern flanks of the fire, this is welcome news to firefighters; however, the southern and western flanks of the fire anticipate increased fire behavior. This includes Alice Creek, and Tom’s Gulch. The high pressure system over the area is creating a strong inversion that may prevent aircraft from flying until early afternoon today. This pressure also serves as a heating blanket that is trapping heat in the lower elevations at night, which prevents fire behavior from settling down.

Due to these expected wind shifts and the structures threatened in the Alice Creek drainage, firefighters are concentrating resources in this area. A structure protection specialist is making contact with land and homeowners in Alice Creek area to understand the complex road systems, identify hazards and triage structures. With heavy equipment that is slower and more difficult to maneuver through narrow, timbered roads, firefighters are placing dozers, feller bunchers and skidgens in areas that can maximize firefighter safety.

In Tom’s Gulch, dozers, feller bunchers and structure protection engines are constructing containment lines north, working their way up Alice Mountain ridges. On the west side of Alice Creek Road, fire is backing down the ridge towards the road.  Once the fire hits the road, firefighters will use is as a containment line. Meanwhile, surface fire is working its way down Telephone Gulch.

Firefighters and aircraft contained a 50 acre spot fire at the confluence of Tom’s Gulch and Alice Creek yesterday, northwest of Glens Gulch. Firefighters also worked on a spot fire that was detected above the Elk Meadows/Evergreen subdivision yesterday. There was no observed fire behavior overnight. Firefighters and aircraft will work in the area today to ensure this spot does not become problematic later.

The northern flank of the fire is crawling northward, paralleling the Falls Creek drainage, north of the Continental Divide.  Dozers completed construction of a contingency line yesterday, which provides a measure of safety to the homeowners in the Little and Big Skunk Creek area. The terrain is too steep and timbered to put firefighters into the drainage, therefore two dozers will further work along the eastern ridgeline to construct another dozer line as a primary containment line to keep the fire within the Drainage. The fire is approximately four miles southeast of the Dearborn Canyon neighborhood. The fire has not crossed the trigger point that would initiate a pre-evacuation notice for that area.

The fire grew an additional 322 acres yesterday bringing the total size to 22,471 acres. The fire is growing daily; consequently, firefighters have been unable to gain containment. It remains at 0%.

Sapphire Complex, SE of Missoula

The Little Hogback Fire, the largest and most active fire in the Sapphire Complex continued to spread slowly on the southwestern flank and along the northern perimeter. Crews finished constructing hand line, tying in to existing lines along Windlass Gulch, hoping to prevent the fire from spreading further. Firefighters were able to burnout into Windless Gulch and hand lines continue to hold there. Mop up operations continue on the east side of the fire, and crews are performing suppression repair where practical. Crews continue to provide structure protection along Rock Creek Road and helicopters aided firefighters by cooling hot spots in the remote terrain. Structure protection measures (including extensive hoselays) are still in place along Rock Creek Road. Preventing fire growth toward homes and ranches continues to dictate operational priorities, and protection of life is always the primary objective.

Evacuation orders remain in effect for approximately 35 residences along Rock Creek Road, beginning from and including Wild Rose Loop south to Stony Creek. All other evacuation warnings are still in effect.

Meyers Fire

Located 25 miles southwest of Phillipsburg, the Meyers Fire has burned over onto the Bitterroot National Forest in the East Fork drainage. This fire is currently 57,933 acres. Thick smoke laid across the fire limiting fire growth much of the day. Winds were favorable for burnout operations in Moose Lake and Zeke’s Meadows later in the day. Both burnout operations were successful in reducing fuels in these areas to limit future fire spread. Reconnaissance flights over the fire confirmed fire is active on the east side of the Continental Divide in Howell Creek. Firefighters started assessing structures and other values at risk in advance of the fire on the east side of the Divide. Crews were shared with the Sapphire Complex to assist with their burning operations. Mike Dueitt’s Southern Area Type 1 Team met with the Meyers Fire and Sapphire Complex teams, local land management agencies, and cooperators to begin transition of incident management.

The Frog Pond and Moose Lake areas are under an evacuation order. Additionally, an evacuation warning is in effect on East Fork Rd from FS Rd 5778 to Little East Fork Rd (FS RD 724) on the Bitterroot National Forest. Those under an evacuation warning should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.