After a wet spring, rising temperatures and dry air have caught up with northwest Montana. The first wildland fire of the 2017 season was reported June 3, 2017, in the Rexford Ranger District north of Libby.
The South Fork Hills Fire, located in the Lookout Creek Drainage, is believed to have been caused by lightning storms during the last week of June, according to a press release from Willie Sykes of the Kootenai National Forest. The main fire spanned roughly 31 acres as of Thursday, July 6, with multiple smaller fire spots outside the main perimeter. Nearly 100 personnel are currently assigned to the fire.
“The main fire is lined with machine and hand line,” the statement read. “The fire is staffed with three hand crews, local fire district personnel and other overhead totaling 91 people. Water tenders and heavy equipment are on site, and helicopters will continue to support the fires with water bucket drops as needed.”
Rexford and Fortine district ranger Bryan Donner said the main fire is contained, but not is not listed as such because of the smaller fire spots outside of the main perimeter. The outside spots, he said, are being ignited by burning embers from inside the main fire being blown out of the containment perimeter.
Donner said there are roughly 25 to 30 smaller spots outside of the perimeter, and current personnel levels will likely remain in place for several days to mop up those areas. Due to the nature of the spots and the possibility that firebrands have landed in dense fuel areas and not yet visibly ignited, Donner said a long-term monitoring plan is being implemented for the area.
Kootenai National Forest Fire Management Officer Dan Rose said the dry, hot weather of May and June has elevated the current fire danger on the K.N.F.
“Fire danger is currently high,” Rose said. “After getting almost twice the normal amount of precipitation in January through April, we’ve had about one-third of the normal precipitation for May and June. That, combined with warm temperatures, has dried out the dead fuels, especially in the valley bottoms and the south and west slopes throughout the forest.”
Rose said there are more than 100 firefighters, a helicopter rappel crew, 10 engines, and three water tenders stationed locally to fight fires on the Kootenai National Forest. In addition to the dedicated local assets, Rose said the K.N.F. coordinates with other agencies and forests for additional fire protection resources. The South Fork Hills Fire, he said, has a 20-person local crew and local equipment on site, but is also being staffed by the Chief Mountain Hotshot crew and a 20-person team from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest.
“We are always working with our neighboring forests and the D.N.R.C. (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) to ensure that we have resources available locally to be prepared for initial attack,” he said.
Rose encouraged all local residents to be fire aware and prepared in the event of a major local wildland fire. He said the Fire Safe Montana website (http://firesafemt.org) is a great resource for fire preparedeness.