MISSOULA — Rail grinding on Montana Rail Link lines will be curtailed for the summer while the wildfire season plays out.
The announcement came a day after a grass fire Tuesday night west of Missoula that threatened a home under construction and charred five acres on Evaro Hill. It was the latest in a weeklong series of fires sparked by a contract maintenance train.
“Due to elevated fire danger, MRL has made the decision to significantly decrease the grinding schedule across our network for the remainder of the summer from an estimated 30 days of activity down to 9 days,” company spokesman Jim Lewis said Wednesday in a press release. “ In addition, we will be pre-soaking the work area with additional water when grinding is occurring.”
He said grinding, an important component of the railroad’s maintenance program, will resume later in the year when fire danger subsides.
The nine days of operation are occurring now and will take place across the MRL network between Missoula and Laurel. Lewis said the schedule is subject to network volumes.
The most recent and largest of the fires set by an eight-car work train operated by Minnesota-based Loram Maintenance of Way started around 4 p.m. Tuesday as the contract grinder came off Evaro Hill west of Missoula.
Firefighters from Frenchtown Rural Fire, Forest Service and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation contained the fire shortly after dark. A DNRC helicopter supplied water drops during the evening.
The fire started in a large pile of scrap railroad ties after the grinding train came through. Mel Holtz of the Frenchtown Fire Department said a crew responded to a call that came in at 5 a.m. Wednesday reporting that the fire had flared up again. A few hours later an excavator arrived on the scene to pull the tie pile apart and quell sparks that remained in the creosote-soaked ties.
“Everything was looking pretty good except about 100 railroad ties,” Holtz said.
Frenchtown fire received a medical call in the Ninemile area in the middle of the fire, "so we were scrambling even more," said Holtz.
Missoula Emergency Services agreed to respond to the call.
The train-caused fires started a week ago on the tracks near Fish Creek as the work train made a slow trail east. Frenchtown Fire responded to 10 fires in the Frenchtown Valley on Friday, two of which turned into grass fires of less than an acre.
Ron Swaney, fire management officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said a different train was responsible for sparking 20 fires in a six-mile stretch of track south of Arlee on Sunday.
On Monday, the grinding train started minor fires between Paradise and Magpie Creek between Perma and Dixon. Swaney said he directed C.T. Camel, prevention and education specialist, to contact the railroad.
“Really, I wanted their schedule and to let us know if they’re going to do any more grinding,” Swaney said.
On Tuesday, the CSKT fire management team positioned engines at the most vulnerable spots along the tracks from Magpie Creek to Evaro.
“We didn’t pick up any smoke, but later on in the afternoon one popped up in Ravalli,” Swaney said.
The Evaro Hill grass fire a few hours later was just off the reservation.
The topic of train-caused fires was discussed at length at Monday morning’s weekly meeting of interagency wild land fire officials with the Missoula County Fire Protection Association. In response to those concerns, Adriane Beck, director of the Missoula office of emergency management, reached out to Tony Bacino, MRL’s safety and security manager.
“More than anything we wanted to get where the grinder train was and a timeline to share with the agencies, and to impress on them the conditions we were anticipating as far as fire behavior and conditions,” Beck said. “I was just trying to impress on them the need for maybe a fire watch, and from my conversations it sounds like they’re doing that.”
Loram’s grinding train profiles a rail and removes any hardened material on it, Lewis said. It’s a common maintenance process that improves rail safety. The train comes equipped with water cannon on the front and back to pre-soak and after-soak the tracks and right-of-way while the train is operating. It also has water spray nozzles to continuously wet the rail ties. Spotters follow the train as well.
Problems arise when sparks lodge in cracks in the ties and come to life to devour the creosote-soaked ties.
This is far from the first time the grinding train has started fires, Beck said, though the volume this year seems to be increased.
“It’s almost something you would anticipate,” she said. “It’s just unfortunate timing. We understand they have maintenance to do on the track, but we certainly hope they take current conditions into consideration.”
The National Weather Service forecast for the Missoula area calls for highs climbing well into the 90s on Thursday and Friday with highs in the upper 90s the next three days. No rain is in sight, but neither is significant wind or thunder.
“We’re not in Stage 1 or Stage 2 restrictions, which would limit the use of machinery,” Holtz pointed out.
The modified grinding train schedule is a relief for firefighters and residents alike. Holtz said costs of fighting the train-caused fires fall on the Frenchtown Fire district, though he added, “Our concern (Tuesday) night was not who’s paying for it, it was, ‘Let’s get the fire under control and then we’ll have the rest of the discussion.’”
Upset residents have called the fire department “wondering who they should contact,” Holtz said. “It’s getting some attention.”
Fire officials have long known about these annual rail grinding projects on MRL lines.
“But I don’t remember them starting this many fires this many days in a row,” Swaney said. “I think the schedule is based on the amount of tons that go across the tracks. I think if I was going to look at it and evaluate it, I would do it more on seasonal basis. They probably could have grinded all they wanted in March and April.”