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On anniversary of 1910 ‘Big Burn,’ Missoula County declares wildfire emergency

Fire-red sunsets have returned to western Montana as smoke fills the valleys and the fire season heats up. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

In an unplanned acknowledgment of the “Big Burn” that tore through the Northern Rockies in 1910, Missoula County on Thursday declared a state of emergency as the wildfire season gains momentum.

The proclamation is standard when conditions are ripe, and with recent hot temperatures and drying fuels, the potential for a large-scale fire is present.

“When we reach the Very High fire danger, which we did on Monday morning, it’s our trigger to initiate a proclamation relative to a state of emergency to wildlife,” said Adrian Beck, director of disaster and emergency services for the county. “It opens our emergency operations plan and provides the delegation and authority to incident commanders to make decisions relative to evacuations, or ingress and egress.”

For the first time this year, the Missoula Valley filled with a smokey haze late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning. The smoke stemmed for a spate of fires sparked after a series of storms peppered the region with several hundred lightning strikes early Wednesday.

The Lolo National Forest reported three new lightning-cause fires near Boyd Mountain about 4 miles west of St. Regis on the Superior Ranger District. Down on the Bitterroot National Forest, lightning also caused five fires, all in the Stevensville District.

Another cold front was expected on Thursday.

“This (proclamation) is not indicating that we have a massive wildfire bearing down on Missoula County as we speak,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It’s putting us a position where we can respond more nimbly if we need to.”

One of the worst wildfire years on record sparked on Aug. 20, 1910 and burned over two days. The event was driven by strong winds that pushed many smaller fires into a firestorm that killed 87 people.

The conflagration burned across the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests, along with several others in northern Idaho and western Montana.

“It was a passing cold front, which I heard might be coming our way today – it happens this time of year in the Northern Rockies,” said Strohmaier. “Many fires throughout the Northern Rockies were fanned to conflagration scale and over 3 million acres were burned across the region.”

Strohmaier, who previously worked for the Bureau of Land Management an U.S. Forest Service in fire management, said wind-driven fire events are common this time of year across the Northern Rockies.

“This (Big Burn) was an era predating climate change and the effects fire suppression had on the landscape,” he said on Thursday. “Big fires have happened and will continue to happen throughout our region.”