Wildfire officials in the greater Missoula area raised the fire danger to “very high” on Monday while fire crews battled more than a dozen new starts across southwest Montana.
The impacts of last week’s lightning became clear on Sunday and Monday, with initial attack crews racing to quash small fires extending from the Bitterroot Valley to the Anaconda-Pintler region.
On Monday afternoon, a Forest Service fire lookout spotted a wildfire 10 miles northwest of the Frenchtown Pond. The blaze quickly grew to 50 acres, wasn’t threatening any structures or private property.
The Butler fire sits near the border of the Ninemile Ranger District and the Flathead Indian Reservation, according to Boyd Hartwig, an information officer for the Lolo National Forest. Its smoke column was visible from downtown Missoula in the early evening Monday.
Hartwig said two helicopters, two hot shot crews and initial attack firefighters from the Ninemile Ranger District were at work on the fire, which showed active burning on all sides – including torching and crowning.
The Lolo forest also picked up a second fire late in the day – the False Point fire in a remote area of the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Seeley Lake Ranger District.
Hartwig said that 60-acre fire is about 25 miles northeast of Clearwater Crossing and was burning actively. No structures are threatened, and fire managers are assessing their options for suppression.
To the south of Missoula, firefighters were no less busy.
“It’s better today than it was Sunday,” said Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay. “But I wouldn’t be surprised to see some new starts in the days ahead.”
McKay said forest officials planned Monday evening to send up an air patrol to scout for new starts. Fire crews had successfully contained nine of 12 new fires on the Bitterroot as of Monday.
Smokejumpers from Missoula and West Yellowstone remain on the Sula District of the Bitterroot forest working to contain several small fires there. Quick initial attack and a lack of wind have kept the fires from spreading.
“The Sula fires are all within a mile of one another,” McKay said. “The lightning really hit that area hard the other day. It’s definitely hot and heating up, and it’s a good thing they were able to get on them quick.”
The Chrandal Creek fire remained the largest active fire on the Bitterroot. But the fire hasn’t seen growth in days and remains at 2,500 acres. Fire officials said the blaze, started by lightning in early July, is now 75 percent contained.
Paula Short with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said 16 lightning-caused fires and two human caused fires were reported Monday to the Southwest Land Office in Missoula.
The two human-caused fires resulted from a downed tree across a power line and a structure fire that burned into the surrounding wildlands. The office oversees an eight-county region.
“It sounds like more of the fires are on Forest Service land than ours right now,” said Short. “We’ve had a lot of initial attacks. We’ve pretty much been keeping everything at bay, but they expect to get some more holdover fires.”
Lightning storms peppered southwest Montana over a three-day span starting last Thursday. Embers can smolder for days before jumping to life as temperatures climb and humidity drops.
Further east, the Dillon Interagency Dispatch Center reported five new lightning-caused fires discovered Sunday on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. All of the fires have been held to less than 10 acres.
Leona Roderick, public information officer for the region, said six Missoula-based smokejumpers and a handful of fire crews were sent to the area Sunday and early Monday.
The Rabbit Creek fire remained the largest of the five Dillon-area fires at 10 acres. It was burning on the Wisdom Ranger District about six miles south of the May Creek Campground.
With summer heating up, western Montana has so far escaped what has been an intense fire season in other parts of the state. To date, McKay said, the Bitterroot forest has seen around 25 fires, including four caused by humans.
“It’s summer on the Bitterroot,” McKay said. “Traditionally, we have 125 fires a year burn around 25,000 acres. Around 90 percent or more are lightning caused. It’s not abnormal for storms to come in and new fires to start.”