How the coming days could define the extent of Montana's wildfire destruction in 2022

Thick smoke blanketed most of central Montana over the Labor Day weekend; a condition that has become all too familiar across the region. Thus far, however, Montanans can count their blessings that the acres burned will be only a fraction of what occurred one year before – maybe.

As of Tuesday morning there were 18 wildfires burning in Montana, according to the Northern Rockies Incident Command Center (NRIC). Half of these fires were less than 600 acres in size, with no front-line Montana fires of greater than 7,000 acres burning within the state. Yet the smoke keeps rolling in, coming in from out-of-control fires in Idaho with smoke seeping into the northern tier.

“There’s an unusually strong area of high pressure that's been in control all over the whole western United States," said National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Nutter. "We’re setting numerous high temperature records, not only at a few places here in Montana, but we’re seeing a lot of those high temperature records out of California for example.

"We’ve got one more day to go with that big high pressure in place," Nutter added. "The regional forecast for the next two days calls for temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s, trailed by winds with gusts that could exceed 55-miles-per-hour."

Already extraordinarily dry fuel sources, a day or two of record-breaking heat, followed by winds that could potentially fan the flames of fires that are already on the margin. Nothing about this sounds good.

“It’s been hot and dry, so the vegetation’s dried out," Nutter added. "We’ve got these record setting high temperatures, low humidity and then we’re going to bring some strong winds into the mix. All of those ingredients combine together to create extreme fire conditions for tomorrow.

“By the afternoon we’re going to be talking about relative humidity down to less than 15%, maybe as low as 7% or 8% in a few areas. That’s just critically dry air. Because it’s just been so hot lately, the amount of moisture that’s in the vegetation out there… in near record low values."

"It kind of reaches its peak intensity over Montana tomorrow," Nutter added. “There’s an unusually strong area of high pressure that's been in control all over the whole western United States. We’re setting numerous high temperature records, not only at a few places here in Montana, but we’re seeing a lot of those high temperature records out of California for example. We’ve got one more day to go with that big high pressure in place."

"It kind of reaches its peak intensity over Montana tomorrow," Nutter continued. "We are looking at those temperatures climbing back up into the mid- to upper-90s with a few places getting closer to 100-degrees, particularly as you get over into eastern Montana. That’s quite unusual for this first week in September. We do expect several locations to set some calendar day if not monthly high temperatures at this point in September during the day tomorrow."

“By the afternoon we’re going to be talking about relative humidity down to less than 15%, maybe as low as 7% or 8% in a few areas," the meteorologist said. "That’s just critically dry air.

"Because it’s just been so hot lately the amount of moisture that’s in the vegetation out there … in near record low values," Nutter said. "The high pressure starts to break down with a system that comes at us from the northwest. That will get the wind blowing tomorrow. So we’re looking at west or southwest winds blowing at 25- to 40-miles-per-hour. Some places, maybe closer to the Rocky Mountain Front could be gusting 55- to 60-miles-per-hour tomorrow afternoon.

“You definitely don’t want to end up being responsible for any new fire starts – doing everything possible from keeping those chains from dragging on the road. Don’t be making any campfires. Even if we get some accidental new fires, they could just be uncontainable.”

Nonetheless, outdoor recreationalists waiting for a break in the weather could find one in the immediate days ahead.

“We are going to transition pretty quickly from this really hot weather day tomorrow to temperatures probably 20-degrees lower by Thursday," Nutter said. "We’ll probably be closer to a high of about 80-degrees on Thursday, and by the time we get to Friday we’ll drop another 15- to 20-degrees. We’re looking at high temperatures on Friday probably in the 60s, so a rapid cool down.

However wildfires across the area keep on burning. Here's a wrap-up of the most concerning among them.

Moose Fire - central Idaho: A primary source of smoke in central Montana

Erratic afternoon winds Monday caused the fire to spot up to one mile from the fire’s edge. Two of the three spots were quickly cooled with water from helicopter bucket drops, and night crews engaged with those areas into the early morning hours today. The larger spot fire in the headwaters of the Jefferson drainage exhibited very active fire behavior and put up a smoke plume visible from Salmon, Idaho.

Tuesday firefighters tried to hold the fire as it actively moved south and east, mopping up hotspots near the firelines. Elsewhere, the fuels work group will continue with fuel reduction actions beneath the powerline. Suppression repair work will begin on the Cabin Creek Road on Ulysses Mountain, north of the Salmon River. Heavy log truck traffic will continue on the Stormy Peak Road as logs are transported from the fuel reduction areas.

It was unseasonably warm again Tuesday. Humidity recovery will remain poor. Afternoon westerly winds may gust up to 20 mph on ridges. Due to record low fuel moisture, breezy winds will contribute to active fire behavior again in the afternoon. A dry cold front is expected Thursday.

Trail Ridge Fire: Lightning-caused, 2,842 acres, dead and downed timber

Located approximately 4.5 miles north of Wisdom, Montana, the Trail Ridge fire is burning on the border of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests. Reports from Fire Personnel indicate they are seeing one burning snag tree coming down about every 3 minutes.

Due to the heavy dead/down timber, and standing dead snags, Firefighters have identified safe, successful strategies to operate outside of the burn scars, using man-made features such as roads and trails as well as natural features for potential containment lines.

Smoke from this fire is expected to hang in the Big Hole Valley and Highways 93 and 43 may intermittently have visibility impacts moving forward, but this is predicted to clear some this afternoon. The communities of Sula, Wisdom, Jackson and Dillon may see smoke and haze from this fire in addition to smoke from the Moose Fire in Idaho and the Thompson Creek Fire near Mystic Lake, also on the Wisdom District.

Kootenai River Complex: Idaho panhandle north of Bonners Ferry – More than 10,000 acres, 0% contained, 168 personnel

On Sept. 2, the Eneas Peak, Katka, Russell Mountain, Scotch Creek and Trout Fires were officially grouped into the Kootenai River Complex. Firefighters are struggling among heavy dead and down timber along with standing dead trees with steep topography pose a hazard to firefighters.

"Active fire behavior with wind driven runs and short range spotting expected to continue with general spread to the East and North toward values at risk," an InciWeb fire report states. "Fire weather watch mid week with dry and unstable conditions will bring an increase in fire activity and intensity throughout the complex. Greatest threat to values at risk will be Wednesday and Thursday. Numerous spot fires will increase in size and intensity as shifting winds align with slopes over the next 72 hours. Precipitation is not expected."

Ursus Fire: Lightning-caused, 1,580 acres, 6 personnel, heavy timber

The Ursus Fire was reported on Aug. 25 and confirmed on August 31. It is burning on the south side of Rapid Creek at the base of Ursus Hill, approximately 1.5 miles up the Rapid Creek drainage. The fire is located in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the Spotted Bear Ranger District.

Fire activity picked up significantly Monday afternoon. An Infrared Mapping flight reported the fire at 23 acres at 2 p.m., and by 6 p.m. the fire was estimated at 1,580 acres. The fire is spreading to the east; sustained crown runs and spotting have been observed by Jumbo Lookout and members of the Spotted Bear Wildland Fire Module (WFM). The Ursus Fire will reach the 2012 Elbow Pass burn scar near the head of Rapid Creek if it continues to burn toward the east, which should act as a buffer to slow the spread of the fire in that direction.

Indian Ridge: Lightning-caused, 6,360 acres, 36 personnel

The Indian Ridge Fire started by lightning on July 7 in the Indian Creek drainage in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It is burning five miles from the Idaho/Montana border and is approximately 30 miles southwest of Darby.

The fire has been active this week primarily along the western and northern flanks, north of Indian Creek. The fire is burning in very steep, rugged and remote terrain, with heavy surface fuels and dead standing timber making access for firefighters difficult and dangerous.

Deep Creek Fire: Lightning-caused, 37 acres, 70% contained, 62 personnel, timber and grass

The Deep Creek Fire in the northwest corner of the Little Belt Mountains was reported in the afternoon of Aug. 31. On Sept. 2, a Type-3 team led by Incident Commander Alex Brooks and Kenny Spint took command of the fire. The fire is estimated to be 37 acres and is 70% contained. Fire personnel were able to use aerial resources on the fire to help reduce fire growth. There are currently 62 personnel assigned to the incident, which includes 1 helicopter, 4 engines and 1 hand-crew.

An area closure is in place to help protect fire personnel and the public. The area closure includes Deep Creek Trail #309, Temple Gulch Trail #308, Trail #311 and Trail #303. The closure will be in effect until Sept. 30, unless rescinded earlier.

Smoke forecast

An Air Quality Alert has been issued for Beaverhead, Broadwater, Cascade, Deer Lodge, Fergus, Gallatin, Granite, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Meagher, Missoula, Powell, Ravalli, and Silver Bow counties due to elevated particulate levels. The decision is based on 24-hour trends expected to be in the unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse range, and potentially exceeding the 24-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standards over the next day.

Very hazy and smoky skies over Montana this morning, as the high pressure followed by a swooping wave and red-flag weather has stirred up several active blazes in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Oregon. Saturday and Sunday, Libby, Hamilton, Missoula and Cut Bank saw levels reaching unhealthy levels, with several sustained unhealthy for sensitive groups hours.

Sunday night into Monday, the wave has helped deflect smoke away from Northwest Montana, and has concentrated more along the center band of the state, as Hamilton, Butte, Helena, Great Falls and Lewistown have seen their levels rise into the unhealthy range, and hence the Air Quality Alerts centered over those regions.

Fortunately, Northwest Montana has settled back into more of the moderate range, which is around the levels of most of the state, minus a band from the Bitterroot Mountains to about the center of the state at Lewistown. For 24-hour averages, most of the state has been moderate from Friday through Sunday, with these notable exceptions: Libby, unhealthy for sensitive Groups; Hamilton, unhealthy; Helena, unhealthy; and Frenchtown, Missoula and Butte, unhealthy for sensitive groups.

"We'll continue to be impacted by smoke from both the Moose fire and other fires to our west and southwest," Nutter explained. "The persistent ridge of high pressure will continue to be a dominate factor in reducing smoke dispersion and increasing ground settling. Smoke dispersion may be improved tomorrow afternoon under increasing winds associated with an incoming trough. We’ll again start the day off in the moderate through unhealthy range across the forecast area.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Montana at critical wildfire risk as hot weather, high winds roll in