The wildfire season started early this year in western Montana, and all indications are it’s going to be a long, difficult one.
As an increasing number of wildfires have sparked in western Montana and Idaho, filling the skies with heavy smoke, the Northern Rockies Coordination Center decided Sunday to move the Northern Rockies Fire Preparedness Level to its highest category, a 5 out of 5.
Conditions are so hot and dry, and so many fires have started, that firefighting resources are stretched beyond the max.
Agencies are trying to put fires out quickly, but a 5 Preparedness Level is triggered when several initial attack attempts are unsuccessful, often because crews are engaged on other large fires so new calls for help can’t be answered. Another requirement is the forecast for the next week predicts high heat and a high risk of other weather events such as lightning and high winds.
That’s what’s predicted for western Montana for at least the next 10 days as a record-breaking heat dome camps over the region. The National Weather Service forecast says hot, dry and hazy/smoky conditions will continue for the next week with little or no relief.
Even worse, there’s a chance of thunderstorm activity later in the week, however a lack of moisture accompanying the system could mean only weak storms develop.
Throughout the Northern Rockies region, 15 new fires, four of which qualify as large, were reported.
The national Preparedness Level is a notch lower at 4, indicating that all firefighting resources are committed and large fire activity is increasing. So as fires continue to break out, no reinforcements are available and regional fire crews will have to do some triage or play a game of whack-a-mole.
“It’s triage. We want to go to fires where we’re successful. Probability of success matters. Firefighter safety matters. Public safety matters,” West Lolo Operations Section Chief Andy Huntsberger said at a Sunday night public meeting in Superior. “You may wonder why does a fire get big. We have only so many resources. We’re getting dealt some tough cards here. It’s July 11. I can’t tell you in my lifetime when we’ve had this kind of fire scenario going on this early in July.”
As of Monday, more than 12,200 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to 59 large fires burning in 12 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Some of those large fires are complexes, which are regions where several smaller fires are being managed.
The National Interagency Fire Center now lists 10 large fires in Montana, two of which – the Norville and Fourmile fires in eastern Montana – started over the weekend.
Three are burning around Missoula, including the 156-acre Brewster Fire east of Rock Creek and the 1,900-acre Trail Creek Fire east of Lost Trail Pass. Both started on July 8.
The biggest of the three is the West Lolo Complex, a group of 15 fires near Superior, St. Regis, Plains and Thompson Falls that were started by lightning strikes on July 7. The seven primary fires, the Deep Lookout Mountain, Thorne, Sunset, Siegel, Cataract, Sheep Creek and Winniemuck fires, have burned more than 1,000 acres.
An Incident Management Team 1 took control of the West Lolo Complex on July 9, and 220 personnel are working the fires in conditions reported as “historically dry.”
Three of the smaller fires – Sunset, Siegel, and Sheep Creek – are under control. The largest fires – the 270-acre Deep Lookout Mountain Fire 12 miles east of Superior and the 930-acre Winniemuck-Thorne Fire northeast of Thompson Falls – are the most difficult, burning in steep, rocky terrain that poses dangers to fire crews in such hazardous weather conditions. Sunday’s winds pushed the Deep Mountain Lookout Fire east into the Ninemile District.
“(Sunday) was a pretty big day,” said Brian Anderson Team 1 fire behavior analyst. “If our wind gusts are getting above 15 mph, that’s going to be one of those key elements. What we expect for the next couple days is a little bit of a relief. The next time we’d see a day like today is maybe Thursday.”
While lot of smoke is blowing in from northern California, central Oregon and Idaho, the West Lolo fires added to the veil of smoke that caused Missoula’s air quality to diminish to unhealthy levels on Sunday midday. When the small particulate concentration is categorized as “unhealthy,” everyone should remain indoors as much as possible. Small particulate matter can lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the blood stream, leading to respiratory and circulatory problems.
“We’re probably going to have a lot of days when the air quality won’t be good at all. I’d like you to think about taking advantage of the times of the day when maybe the smoke clears a little,” said Team 1 air resource advisor Jill Webster.
In addition to large fires, fire managers are dealing with many smaller and spot fires, ome of which could join the large fire list. Many are popping up in the West Lolo Complex. Huntsberger said Team 1 was dealing with 35 fire starts at one point.
On Saturday, fires sparked up near Lolo Pass, prompting the shutdown of the Lolo Pass Visitor Center and U.S. Highway 12. As of Monday, the Lolo Creek fire was combined with the BM Hill and Shotgun fires into the Granite Pass Complex burning more than 900 acres total. The visitor center remains closed but Highway 12 is open. Travelers should be prepared for delays and fire traffic.
Such summers are likely the new normal as climate change effects accelerate, according to Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming. Heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s — on average at least six times a year in the U.S. And heat waves have become larger, affecting 25% more land area in the Northern Hemisphere than they did in 1980. If you include ocean areas, heat waves grew 50%.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.