Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Recent high temperatures helped a Swan Valley wildfire spread on Saturday, prompting the Missoula County Sheriff's Office to issue a mandatory evacuation order for residents in the area.

The National Weather Service office in Missoula also issued a fire weather watch for Monday afternoon.

On Friday, as temperatures neared 100 degrees, the Colt Fire was estimated at about 200 acres but was growing in all directions in heavy, dead and downed timber with frequent torching and spotting.

By Sunday morning, it had grown to 1,000 acres and was 0% contained, according to fire officials. The growth prompted the Sheriff's Department to issue a mandatory evacuation order along Highway 83 from mile marker 27 to mile marker 33.

"You are ordered to immediately leave the area. Incident conditions present an immediate threat to persons in this area," the department stated.

Temperatures are forecast to top 100 degrees both Sunday and Monday. A fire weather watch has been issued for Monday afternoon as gusty winds move in. Combined with low humidity, it's likely to result in critical fire conditions, the National Weather Service has warned.

In additional, dry thunderstorms with lightning are possible Monday afternoon and will likely result in new fires across western Montana.

The Colt fire was detected one morning last week in the Mission Mountains near Colt Lake about 15 miles northwest of Seeley Lake, after lightning started the wildfire on Monday.

Fire crews moved in shortly after, including one Hotshot crew, two Type 2 hand crews, two fire engines and employees from the Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service.

They had to withdraw on Thursday afternoon as the fire blew up slightly. They returned Friday morning and have been working to slow the spread in coordination with aircraft.

Farther south, two wildfires are burning down near Hamilton.

East of Hamilton, the Bowles Creek Fire is burning 3 miles southwest of Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. Started by a lightning strike on June 20, the fire is now estimated at 1,300 acres, burning in thick timber.

Initially, the fire just creeped through ground fuels. But fire behavior has worsened over the week, with the fire running, torching and spotting, as the afternoon weather conditions grew hot and dry with moderate upslope winds. The fire is producing smoke that is visible from numerous locations along the Skalkaho Highway and in the Bitterroot Valley.

A hand crew from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. (Inciweb)
A hand crew from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. (Inciweb)
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Additional resources are on order, with one Type 2 Initial Attack crew arriving on Friday evening and another on Saturday morning. A Type 3 Incident Management Team under the direction of Incident Commander Brad Bergman is scheduled to in-brief on Saturday morning and assume command of the fire Sunday morning.

West of Hamilton, the lightning-caused Little Bear Fire is burning in the Bitterroot Range of Idaho. Detected on July 3, the fire is burning in dead and down remnants from 2012 Freezeout Fire. Fire behavior and intensity is expected to increase as plant moisture decreases due to hotter and drier conditions.

Electronic reader-board signs have been placed on Highway 12 to warn motorists of possible hazards due to wildfire and smoke. Visitors are urged to avoid the Warm Springs Creek and Jerry Johnson Hot Springs area due to the dangers of the fire nearby.

An area closure, encompassing Jerry Johnson Hot Springs and associated pack bridges, is planned near this fire area to protect the safety and welfare of the public and provide for safe firefighting efforts and access. Specific closure information and maps will be posted soon.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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