Lightning touches off seven wildfires on Bitterroot Forest

A wildfire consumes a tree in this file photo. 

Thunderstorms hammered the Bitterroot Valley over the long July 4 weekend.

While the sometimes violent storms brought hail, heavy winds and a good drenching for some areas, they also ignited seven small fires that kept Bitterroot National Forest firefighters on the alert.

Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay said firefighters have responded to seven lightning-caused fires since July 4. All of them were small. They were also scattered from one end of the forest to the other.

As of Tuesday morning, all of the fires were either out or in the process of being mopped up.

“We did get quite a bit of rain, especially right under the storm cells,” McKay said. “In some places, we received between 3/4-inch to an inch of rain. In other locations, it was pretty spotty. As an average, we received about 1/4-inch since the weekend. That’s certainly helping the fire situation.”

But that help looks as though it will be short-lived.

With temperatures expected to climb into the high 80s and low 90s this week, McKay said no one will be surprised to see new fires showing up on the national forest.

“When you look at the lightning maps, there were lots of strikes from the southern end to the northern end,” McKay said. “This weekend, it was one storm right after another. With that kind of frequency, we expect to see some new fires popping up.”

The Bitterroot Forest has seven lookout towers staffed, and air patrol flying daily looking for new smoke.

“We’re fine on resources right now,” he said. “The issue that could create some challenges for us is that opening burning is still open in the county. If we start getting lightning fires, it’s going to be hard for us to respond to escaped burns. If people are going to start burning debris, we’re asking them to really keep a close eye on the weather.

“If we’re responding to a lightning-caused fires, it could get pretty dicey if there is suddenly a rash of escaped debris fires, too,” McKay said. “The conditions are going to change quickly. It’s going to become like summer and things will dry out quickly.”

Abandoned campfires continue to create challenges for Bitterroot Forest employees. There were a couple of campfires left still burning at campgrounds in the Lake Como area over the July 4 weekend.

“People need to make sure that campfires are fully extinguished before they leave,” McKay said.

There have been a total of 23 wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest this year. Eight were human-caused from unattended campfires and the remaining 15 started due to lightning.

The relatively cool and wet start to summer has pushed fire season back a little this year.

“The first big one at Reynolds Lake last year started in early July,” McKay said. “We’re several weeks behind right now, but once temperatures settle into the high 80 and low 90s, the situation will change quickly. People need to remember to be careful with fire.”