Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current 

People start most wildfires, but Sunday’s unusual thunderstorm might have added to the count.

Saturday’s 90-degree temperatures brought boatloads of people out to float the Clark Fork River. Forecasts indicated Sunday’s weather would be about the same, but then, the sky began to darken by mid-morning Sunday.

Thunderstorms rumbled over Missoula, bringing some rain and dropping the temperature to 60 degrees until clouds finally dispersed around 3 p.m.

While some enjoyed the cooler weather, those thunderclouds also produced lighting. Starting in the Palouse region of Idaho, the storms produced lightning all along its eastward journey as far as the Little Belt Mountains west of Judith Gap. Blitzortung.org recorded about six dozen strikes within a 30-mile radius of Missoula and another 27 north of Seeley Lake.

A lightning strike doesn’t automatically cause a wildfire. If it does, the blaze often doesn’t grow big enough to be discovered for a day or two. By Monday, a few fires popped up that might have resulted from Sunday’s storms, although fortunately, none have amounted to much.

The Dog Lake Fire was discovered on Monday in the mountains between Plains and Hot Springs, but the cause is undetermined. As of Tuesday morning, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes reported the fire hadn’t grown beyond an acre. It’s just west of the Wilks Gulch Fire, a lightning-caused fire that was discovered near Hot Springs on July 7 and is now fully contained, according to the Montana Department of Resources and Conservation.

South of Lincoln in Powell County, the Stuckee Fire was also reported Monday on private land, but it was limited to a tenth of an acre. Seven miles farther east, the Prickly Pear Fire was reported Sunday burning on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. But it too remained small, estimated at less than 2 acres on Tuesday.

Closer to Missoula, the Porter Fire started Monday in the hills north of Wye and Interstate 90, but it was a structure fire. Crews limited the burn to an acre, and at this point, no more information is available. It’s near the area where the Polecat Fire broke out on Saturday – possibly caused by a trail malfunction - burning 345 acres before crews got it under control.

Even though recent fires have been fairly tame, they’re all a strong indication that the risk of wildfire is increasing. As a result, the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests have increased the fire danger to “Very High” as vegetation has continued to dry out. That could cause trouble as isolated dry thunderstorms are predicted for southern Ravalli County and the Big Hole and Beaverhead valleys Tuesday through Wednesday.

The National Interagency Fire Center warned Tuesday that hot, dry, and unstable conditions are expected throughout the weekend across much of California, the Pacific Northwest, and northern Great Basin into the northern Rockies, with high temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s, about 8 to 20°F above normal. Low relative humidity could make things worse.

Heading into August, the Fire Center is predicting that the fire potential for the central portion of Montana will jump to above normal.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports that people have caused more than 90% of the 38,400 wildfires reported so far this year. To avoid adding to that tally, people are asked to be careful with fire. Don’t leave campfires burning or even smoldering, dispose of cigarettes properly, and don’t park vehicles in dry vegetation.

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