The dry thunderstorm that swept through the Flathead area last night set off dozens of spot fires, left about 5,000 houses without power for hours and previews what’s to come this weekend as a new weather front moves in.
Malinda Goldhirsch lives in Whitefish and got a firsthand taste of the powerful storm while watching TV with her family.
"And a big orange glow happened all of a sudden, and it sounded like a pop."
That pop was likely the sound of the power lines a hundred feet away from her home snapping. The live wire caught ignited the dry grass below, and within minutes the yard at the edge of her driveway was on fire.
“It literally blew up. All this happened in about three minutes.”
Goldhirsch called 911 while her husband raced to douse the flames with the garden hose.
"Didn't even stop to put shoes on," she says.
A neighbor who fights fires for the Montana Department of Natural Resources showed up with a pulaski and another man two doors down showed up with two fire extinguishers to put out the flames creeping up a larch tree.
"Everybody came together and helped out. it was great.”
By the time the Whitefish City Fire Department showed up 7 minutes later, the fire was largely under control.
Rick Sacca is Flathead County’s emergency manager. He says this wasn’t the only power line to break during Thursday night’s strong and erratic winds.
“We had 56 calls for 12 cases of power lines that were igniting small fires,” Sacca says.
Firefighters were able to contain the small fire starts in the valley floor, but three fires continue to burn in Glacier National Park, causing trail and campground closures that remain in effect northeast and southeast of Lake McDonald.
Sacca says fire managers are very concerned about forecasts for an approaching cold front that will present problematic conditions for firefighting this weekend.
“We all spent quite a bit of time studying the information that they provided, and all the fire managers are very concerned,” Sacca says.
The Flathead has already been experiencing unusual weather patterns, with winds coming atypically from the north and northeast. This new cold front will likely shift wind directions entirely to stoke existing fires and breathe life into lightning holdovers.
“That's why we’re so concerned about the weather change coming, because it’s going to come almost from the opposite direction," says Sacca. "That’s going to change the dynamics of the fire behavior and the locations where things will burn at a higher rate as opposed to a lower rate.”
Sacca says there are a few areas emergency managers know to be especially hard hit by conditions like this, specifically, the North Fork Corridor and Bad Rock Canyon east of Columbia Falls. But when it comes to the dry thunderstorms expected to move through northwest Montana on Saturday night?
“The areas we should be really alert on with lightning danger is anywhere.”
Sacca breaks the weekend down like this: on Saturday, the concern is hot, dry, breezy and unstable weather conditions that could promote active fire behavior.
“And then following that up with overnight thunderstorms lasting into Sunday morning.”
Those storms will also likely lead to active fire activity Sunday morning. By Sunday evening, a new cold front will roll in, bringing another round of thunderstorms that could cause active fire behavior. In short:
“Critical fire weather possible this weekend,” Sacca says.
That means absolutely no campfires or fireworks, no outdoor smoking, don’t drive through tall grasses or mow your lawn after 1 pm.
“And just be very aware that some of smallest actions that we do normally in the wet season could actually start fire, and any fire that we have now has the potential to grow into a very big one.”
Sacca says this is what summer in northwest Montana is like. People don’t need to stop recreating and enjoying where they live, but he adds, “our recommendation is that we're always prepared to go. We always have a go bag, regardless of what the conditions are.”
The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for western Montana from 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon through 9 p.m. Sunday night.