Several new wildfires spark, grow quickly in NW Montana

CSKT Division of Fire reports some fires that started Sunday now thousands of acres

By: - July 31, 2023 1:44 pm
The Big Knife Fire outside of Arlee, Montana, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 2023.

The Big Knife Fire outside of Arlee, Montana, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan)

Around 30 new wildfires started in Montana over the past 24 hours, some of which forced evacuations Sunday, and at least five active fires have topped 1,000 acres in the drought-stricken western part of the state.

Dry lightning sparked several fires in the Mission Valley on Sunday that grew quickly because of high winds and dry conditions, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Division of Fire said in news and social media releases.

The American Red Cross of Montana has four shelters operating for people who have had to evacuate because of wildfires. They said the shelters in Missoula, Ronan and Arlee were on standby, but the Kalispell shelter remains open.

  • Missoula: Cold Springs School, 625 Briggs Street
  • Kalispell: Canvas Church, 255 Summit Ridge Drive
  • Ronan: Ronan High School, 130 3rd Ave. NW
  • Arlee: Arlee Community Center, 34806 Pow Wow Road

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As of Monday morning, the Niarada Fire west of Elmo, which was discovered early Sunday, was estimated at 5,000 acres after it jumped Highway 28 on Sunday and pushed to the northeast. As of Sunday afternoon, there were 18 smokejumpers, seven single-engine airtankers and a helicopter working the fire, and the CSKT Division of Fire said Monday it was hopeful weather conditions would allow for continued aerial firefighting.

Another new fire in the area, the Middle Ridge Fire southwest of Sloan’s Bridge, was estimated to be 7,000 acres Monday. The CSKT Division of Fire said two large air tankers, six water tenders and six skidgens were working the fire.

The third start in the Mission Valley is called the Communication Butte Fire and is north of Dixon. The CSKT Division of Fire said it was located in steep and hard-to-access grass and timber and that a 20-person crew was on the fire hoping to engage when it was safe enough to do so.

The Big Knife Fire east of Arlee, which started last week, was estimated at 3,000 acres Monday morning after starting the day Sunday at an estimated 721 acres. Fire officials said the fire showed “extreme” behavior overnight into Monday, with winds gusting up to 35 miles per hour in some areas.

The CSKT Division of Fire said firefighters had been making “good progress” on getting lines in on the west side of the fire to protect homes near Arlee, but the fire remains 0% contained.

A fire on the west side of Lolo forced evacuations on Sunday afternoon, but some of the evacuation orders were lifted by Sunday night. It is unclear as of Monday afternoon what started the fire.

The Colt Fire, located about 15 miles north of Seeley Lake, was 6,177 acres and 8% contained, according to the incident management team, per a Sunday afternoon mapping flight. Despite the red flag conditions, firefighters’ lines largely held, fire managers said, but they expect the fire to have grown after the flight.

And the Bowles Creek Fire, burning 3 miles west of Skalkaho Pass, was 1,714 acres and 3% contained Monday, according to its management team, after seeing some spot fires during Sunday’s wind event.

Firefighter using drip torch during firing operation west of Rainy Lake, Friday, July 28.
Firefighter using drip torch during firing operation west of Rainy Lake, Friday, July 28. (Photo courtesy Colt Fire Incident Management)

According to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, there are currently 63 active fires burning in Montana – the largest of which are burning in western Montana. The state has seen 965 fires so far this year.

Data from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality showed air quality was at moderate levels in most of western Montana early Monday afternoon but was at levels unhealthy for sensitive groups in the Seeley Lake area.

But air quality is expected to get worse Tuesday, primarily in southwest Montana, as smoke from the Elkhorn Fire in Idaho moves into the area.

High temperatures across western Montana are expected to stay in the 80s to low 90s on Monday, with winds out of the south and west around 10 miles per hour, gusting to 20 mph.

A red flag warning is in effect for the Bitterroot Valley, where winds out of the west could gust to 30 mph, along with relative humidity in the 7-14% range, the National Weather Service said. The NWS’s fire weather planning forecast said the Beaverhead National Forest could also see a slight chance of thunderstorms that could lead to more spot fires. The dry and windy conditions will cause elevated fire concerns across the western part of the state, the NWS said, which was echoed by fire managers.

“These warm and dry conditions will again lead to active, intense fire behavior,” Northern Rockies Incident management Team 1 Commander Brent Olson said in Monday’s update for the Colt Fire.

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A fire weather meteorologist told Gov. Greg Gianforte and other state agency officials two weeks ago that the fire season was about to begin in earnest, especially in northwest Montana, because of the heat that has gripped most of the state since then and the persistent drought in the Flathead region. Since then, there have been more than 250 new fire starts across the state.

Stage 1 fire restrictions, which ban campfires outside of fire pits, went into effect Saturday in Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties, most of which are seeing severe drought conditions. And the governor has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand drought disaster declarations into more counties in western and northern Montana.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday designated Flathead and Lincoln counties as primary natural disaster areas because of drought, adding that some of the counties Gianforte had requested designations for had already received them.

The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting slightly above-average precipitation in Montana Aug. 5-9.
The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting slightly above-average precipitation in Montana Aug. 5-9. (Image via NOAA Climate Prediction Center)

That drought is expected to persist through October, according to the latest seasonal drought outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. But in the short-term, the center is predicting below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation over the next two weeks for most of Montana.

The six-to-10-day temperature outlook shows all but the very northwestern tip of Montana should be at or below normal temperatures for early August and slightly above-average precipitation. On the 8-14 day outlook, the chances of above-average precipitation statewide expands, as does the area of the state seeing below-normal temperatures.

High temperatures in central and western Montana are generally expected to stay in the upper 80s or lower 90s through Wednesday, along with drier air.

But later this week, monsoon moisture from the southwest could bring rain to the southwestern part of the state, according to the NWS offices in Great Falls and Missoula, though meteorologists at both offices said they were still watching the forecasts closely to see how they develop this week and how far the moisture might move north.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the new drought disaster declarations from the USDA secretary.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.

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