Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The cool moisture moving in this weekend could help moderate local wildfires, but some will be more stubborn than others.

That was the message from Incident Management Team 3, which took over management of three wildfires on the Flathead Reservation on Tuesday. They held a public information meeting in the Arlee Community Center Thursday night.

Shane Hendrickson, Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent of the Flathead Agency, said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire had been holding its own on the Big Knife Fire until five other fires broke out across the Flathead Reservation last weekend.

“(The Big Knife Fire) is in a very difficult location and has developed into what you see now,” Hendrickson told Arlee residents. “We hung onto this as a local team. We felt we were managing it fairly well, and then we woke up to four or five more big fires throughout the middle of the reservation. We found our capacity stretched from one end of the reservation to the other. So we called in a team.”

Incident Team spokesperson Jenny Garson said the CSKT told the team during the transition briefing to be aware of and try not to damage cultural resources on the reservation.

That may come into play as fire crews try to contain the Big Knife Fire, the most challenging of the three fires the team addressed. The other two fires are the Mill Pocket and the Niarida fires on the west side of the reservation. None of the fires have any containment, but this weekend’s weather may change that, said Phillip Knaub, U.S. Forest Service fire operations chief.

The 1,929-acre Mill Pocket Fire is burning along the eastern face of the mountains west of Nairida. The CSKT Fire Division had laid fire lines around the fire but flames have been jumping the lines, especially on the west side as the fire burns uphill. Fortunately, the 2007 Chippy Creek Fire burned the area to the east and the grasses and shrubs that have regrown will retard the fire if they get some rain, said Fire behaviorist Matt Butler. That’s where they could get some containment in a few days.

A few miles to the west, the 13,686-acre Nairida Fire has grown two “arms,” one to the northeast across Highway 28 and the other to the southeast.

Similar to the Mill Pocket Fire, the northern arm has entered an area that burned in last year’s Elmo Fire. Since the fuels there are finer, there’s not as much heat so it’s moving slower. Crews are setting a line at the Cromwell Creek Road and burning the area between the fire and the road to slow things further.

Conditions are less favorable along the southern arm where the land has more steep wooded draws. Butler said erratic spotting occurs along the draws and ridges due to squirrelly winds. The prevailing wind normally blows out of the west, but Flathead Lake creates winds that move onshore from the east. As a result, crews are setting a line farther east along Vincent Creek but hope to get something closer to the fire if the weather tamps the fire down a bit.

Unlike the other two fires, the Big Knife Fire is burning higher up into the mountains and timber rather than across more grassy areas, so it’s going to be harder to put out.

“This fire’s going to be here for a while, probably until the snow flies. Just because of that kind of country, we can’t put our firefighters in there,” Knaub said.

Thursday night’s infrared observation flight estimated the Big Knife Fire at around 4,400 acres, an increase of 1,700 acres over two hot days that saw very low humidity. Butler said the fire has been unusually active in the evenings due to the low humidity.

“It would get active around midnight and go until about 2. Wednesday night, it stayed active until 6 a.m. We’ve been surprised with how long it stayed active,” Butler said.

To the north, the fire spotted across Big Knife Creek earlier in the week and has burned up the ridge to spill over slightly into the upper Gold Creek drainage. But it hasn’t moved much farther because it would have to burn downhill and “it takes a lot more work and effort to burn downhill than it does uphill,” Butler said.

The crews are focusing on keeping the fire from coming west toward Arlee. Because of that, they can’t do as much to keep the fire from moving east, which is its main direction. The eastern edge is in rough mountainous country and some places are too dangerous for crews to be.

“Given our focus on the west side, as the fire moves east, we’ll identify cultural areas, sensitive areas, values at risk, we’ll fight fire where appropriate,” Knaub said.

Meteorologist Shawn Colmquist said the best thing about the cooler weather moving into Montana is the higher humidity. Daytime temperatures will drop into the 70s and there’s an increasing chance of showers and wet thunderstorms.

If predictions hold, the fire area has a 50-60% chance of receiving up to a quarter-inch of rain. That could effectively wet down lighter fuels, but it will only cause the Big Knife Fire to smoke and maybe slow a bit.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at