MISSOULA — High temperatures and continued dry conditions were no help to firefighters in western Montana as they had to handle a pair of new blazes that started Sunday near Missoula.
Just before 2 p.m., a small fire started near Interstate 90 just east of Rock Creek. The fire, which grew to about 5 acres, was burning south of the road at mile marker 130 next to Beavertail Hill State Park, said Boyd Hartwig, spokesman for the Lolo National Forest.
Firefighters from both the U.S. Forest Service and the Clinton Rural Fire District responded to the blaze, using several fire engines as well as a helicopter that conducted water drops.
“We had a really fast response on it,” Hartwig said, adding that crews expected to have the fire contained within hours.
He said the fire is believed to be human-caused and began in the ditch just off the interstate shortly before 2 p.m. Sunday. No structures were threatened, and one of the eastbound lanes of the interstate was closed down while fire crews worked.
Hartwig said Montana has seen a string of human-caused fires in recent weeks and said the fire season is still likely to be very active through the rest of the summer. He urged people to use caution when outdoors, and to be aware that conditions across the region are very dry.
“We really need the public’s help and cooperation to help keep the number of fires in our area down,” he said.
A second new start on Sunday sent fire teams into the mountains to the southwest of Arlee. Smoke was visible from Highway 93 from a roughly 5-acre fire that was first spotted shortly after 4 p.m. about two miles outside of town. Tribal fire crews, aided by a pair of helicopters and a tanker dropping retardant, were dispatched to control the fire.
Hartwig said the closest home is about a half-mile away from the fire, but there are power lines closer to where it is burning.
The Missoula valley was socked in with smoke over the weekend as well. Jeff Kitsmiller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Missoula, said the majority of the smoke that moved into the area is from fires in central Washington east of the Cascades. He said the smoke is likely to stick around through Monday and won’t start to clear up until late Monday night or Tuesday.
“We might be getting through the worst of it now,” Kitsmiller said.
The amount of smoke the Washington fires emit will determine how long area skies stay clear.
Monday night is also Missoula’s best chance to see some rainfall, although Kitsmiller said the amount of precipitation is expected to be minimal.
The Reynolds Creek fire in Glacier National Park grew over 300 acres over the weekend as hot weather and wind drove the fire north.
However, firefighters were able to increase containment of the 3,913-acre fire to 67 percent. The cost of fighting the fire is now estimated at $7.8 million.
The main increase in size was due to burning in the Rose Creek and Two Dog drainages on the north end of the fire’s perimeter. Fire crews are allowing that area to burn to reduce the amount of fuel in the area and protect fire lines on the east side of the Reynolds Creek fire.
Work on the blaze continued under a red flag warning for high heat, strong winds and low humidity in the area. The park reported that fire and smoke will likely continue to be visible in the burned area and the Rose Creek drainage until the first snow of the year.
Along with strengthening fire lines and putting out spot fires, firefighters are working around the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which remains closed east of Logan Pass. Fire crews identified more than 25 trees along the road that have been weakened and will need to be removed. There are also more unburned trees on the roadside that still have the potential to burn.
Fire crews are also working on structure protection near the Rising Sun area.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is open to Logan Pass on the west side of the park, although park officials say visitors should expect delays along the road.
Wildlife has returned to the area, with firefighters reporting sightings of elk, bear, coyotes, moose and deer.