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A firefighting plane drops a load of retardant on an area of active flames Monday afternoon while helping to suppress the 2 1/2-acre wildfire in the Colorado Gulch area of Grant Creek. The fire was burning on a hillside above the dozen or so homes in the area and no structures were threatened.

With the danger of wildfire continuing to grow in west-central Montana, fire management officials decided Wednesday to implement the traditional first round of restrictions on campfires and smoking.

People will no longer be able to light a campfire outside of developed campgrounds or recreation areas with provided metal or concrete fire rings under the stage 1 restrictions that go into effect Thursday.

Smokers will have to remain inside their vehicles, buildings or stay within areas cleared of all flammable debris.

So far this year, wildland firefighters have responded to 60 human-caused fires in west-central Montana. The cause of the fires included unattended campfires, towing chains dragging on the highway, people mowing grass and welding.

“The decision to go to stage 1 restrictions was based on numerous factors, including weather, declining fuel moistures, and the number of human-caused and natural fires,” said Bitterroot National Forest fire management officer Mark Wilson. “Unfortunately, we continue to find abandoned campfires on the forest, including this weekend. It’s hotter and drier than you realize and we are asking the public to be extremely careful with any fire.”

At this point, Wilson said the long-range forecast is calling for warmer than normal temperatures to last well in October.

“A lot of what happens now will depend on what kind of moisture we receive,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be the driver.”

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Fire danger on the Bitterroot National Forest has been on a slow and steady increase for several weeks now.

There are currently three fires burning on the Bitterroot.

Two small fires in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness are being suppressed and are currently in the mop-up stage.

One new fire was found Tuesday on the Stevensville Ranger District in the Sapphire Mountains above the Gold Creek trailhead.

The Owens Point fire was at two acres Wednesday afternoon. Three helicopters were dumping water on it and at least 10 firefighters were assigned to the blaze.

“It is burning in an area that hasn’t burned before,” Wilson said. “It’s in really rugged, nasty terrain. There’s not a lot of dirt to build lines around it.”

Despite an active fire season around the West and recent fire activity on the Lolo National Forest, Wilson said the Bitterroot Forest is faring pretty well with resources.

“Up until this latest fire, we were sitting at about 85 percent staffing,” he said. “That’s better than I would expect considering everything else that going on across the West.”

The stage 1 restrictions will be in place for lands managed by the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests, Flathead Indian Reservation, Missoula Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Montana DNRC Southwestern Land Office and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2.

Counties that implemented the restrictions include Missoula, Ravalli, Mineral, Powell north of Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 12, Sanders south of the Kootenai National Forest and the portion of Lake County inside the reservation.

The city of Missoula adopted the restrictions on its open space and conservation lands.

Anyone caught violating the restrictions can be fined up to $5,000 and face up to six months in jail. They can also be held liable for all suppression costs and damages if they start a fire.

For more information about the fire restrictions, go to firerestrictions.us.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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