Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the Colt fire spreading and several new fires reported Tuesday morning as a result of last night's lightning, Missoula County has issued an emergency fire proclamation, giving authorities the power to conduct evacuations.

Already, one area near the Colt fire has been issued a mandatory evacuation notice and several other areas, including homes around Lake Inez and a stretch of Highway 83, have been issued evacuation warnings.

But with the Colt fire marching to the southeast toward more populated areas, those warnings could become mandatory, according to Adriane Beck, director of the county's Disaster and Emergency Services.

The fire was reported at 4,300 acres on Tuesday morning.

“What we're expecting, based on how fires behave and the terrain and the way the weather comes in, is for this fire to march down to the southeast,” Beck said. “In anticipation of that, all the campgrounds in (Lake Alva and Lake Inez) have been closed.”

The Colt fire started last Monday as a result of lightning and has slowly advanced in heavy timber with dead and downed fuel. Beck said evacuation warnings are issued to provide residents notice that the fire is heading in their direction.

If they need to gather pets and personal supplies, now is the time to do it, Beck said.

“We're trying to give people as much anticipation as possible that an evacuation order may be coming,” said Beck. “Our intent is to provide people a warning before an order, but sometimes these fires move very quickly and very rapidly, and we're not afforded that time. In the event it starts spotting ahead of the fire, we may not have a whole lot of time to make face to face contact or have conversations with every household about what's going on.”

The Colt fire is moving to the south and west toward Lake Alva and Highway 83.
The Colt fire is moving to the south and west toward Lake Alva and Highway 83.

A complex incident management team took over fire duties on Sunday morning and the Missoula County Sheriff's Department is working closely with fire officials.

Beck said they've established a number of action points in the area north of Seeley Lake. If and when the fire reaches those points, it will trigger different steps based upon the values at risk, including natural resources and private property.

The county increased the fire danger to Very High on Monday. It's likely to increase again in the coming days or weeks, and the county could consider Stage II restrictions soon.

“There's no relief in sight. Talking with the National Weather Service, August is looking to be hot and dry,” said Beck. “Any new starts – we have a couple popping up this morning as a result of some lightning last night – with the wrong conditions being wind, it could necessitate us taking emergency action.”

With July's stretch of hot, dry conditions and August projected to be the same, Missoula County is urging all residents in the urban interface to prepare now to protect their property. It's the primary duty of the homeowner to do so, they said.

Experts recommend clearing brush and debris 100 yards from a home.

“It always comes to this. If folks are looking for the best way to mitigate risk around their home, focus on the home ignition zone,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “What's going to make a difference of your home deteriorating into a pile of rubble and ash versus standing is doing work around your home, like cleaning pine needles out of your gutters and getting that pile of firewood off your deck.”