Montana firefighters busy

A heavy aerial and ground attack by firefighters kept homes safe on the north side of Whitefish Lake over the weekend. Fire managers with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the human-caused fire was ignited by equipment operating in a dry hayfield; the fire burned onto forested areas of the Stillwater State Forest.

The North Lake Fire burned only about 5 acres, but spot fires quickly spread to a 17-acre perimeter. The fire was 80 percent contained by Monday and crews were still mopping up. The fire was first reported by the Warner Peak Lookout, according to the Western News out of Libby, Montana.

Aerial support was dispatched Saturday afternoon and included Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters. Five engines, two watertenders, a hotshot crew and another crew assisted. Homes and other structures were within the vicinity, but no evacuations were necessary. Flathead County requested assistance from the Red Cross to open a shelter at Canvas Church in Kalispell.

Montana Public Radio reported that another relatively small fire late Sunday took off from the outskirts of Lolo. Firefighters kept the wind-driven fire, burning through dry grass and brush, to about 20 acres — but it destroyed a mobile home and damaged a second one. According to the Missoula Rural Fire District, the fire also destroyed four shops and garages and another 12 outbuildings; it also totaled or damaged about a dozen vehicles. The fire is under investigation.

Colt Fire ICP
Hand crew headed for supper at the Colt Fire base camp

Numerous fires burned actively across northwest Montana and at least three new fires took off in the Mission Valley Sunday after a dry lightning storm. The Niarada Fire west of Elmo was at 1,000 acres Monday morning, and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) fire managers said Hwy 28 was closed Sunday after the fire jumped the highway; it was estimated at 200 acres by Sunday evening, about 11 miles west of Elmo, and 18 smokejumpers were working the fire. Four SEATs, a helicopter, and other resources also responded.

The Middle Ridge Fire southwest of Sloan’s Bridge, at 500 acres, was burning in grass and timber. North of Dixon, the Communication Butte Fire was estimated at 255 acres, with 20 firefighters assigned. CSKT fire managers said no structures were threatened by any of the fires.

Numerous other small fires cropped up Sunday in Lake and Flathead counties.

The Woodward Point and Porcupine Creek fires were detected in the Mission Mountains on the east side of Flathead Lake; along Hungry Horse Reservoir, the Ridge Fire had burned about 5 acres and the Emery Fire was less than an acre. Other smaller fires were reported farther down the reservoir.

The Kah Mountain Fire in the Swan Mountains was at 15 acres.

Colt Fire northwest of Seeley Lake
Colt Fire northwest of Seeley Lake, inciweb photo.

The Colt Fire, northwest of Seeley Lake on the Flathead and Lolo National Forests, had grown to nearly 6,200 acres Monday. It is burning in dense timber with heavy dead and down fuels, about 12 miles northwest of Seeley. Fire behavior has included torching, spotting, and active consumption of heavy fuels. The fire was started by lightning on Monday, July 17, and Montana DNRC and USFS firefighters responded the next day. The fire is burning on the Lolo National Forest but is under Montana DNRC fire protection.

Colt Fire community meeting in Condon
Colt Fire community meeting in Condon, July 26.

Fire managers expect the fire will increase in size with the forecasted weather conditions. The Colt Fire is a full-suppression fire and crews are creating fuel breaks and containment lines, along with doing structure protection assessments and prep. Air resources will be assigned as needed. Several forest roads and other areas have been closed.

The USDA has designated Flathead and Lincoln counties as primary natural disaster areas, according to a KPAX-TV report, meaning farmers and ranchers can apply for emergency loans. Gov. Greg Gianforte asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that 11 counties be designated drought disaster areas. The USDA responded that Flathead and Lincoln counties will be named primary natural disaster areas, so farm operators there can be considered for Farm Service Agency (FSA) emergency loans.

A quick look at seven fires in the Central Idaho area

Map of fires, central Idaho, Sept. 9, 2022
Map of fires in central Idaho, Sept. 9, 2022.

With 35 large uncontained wildfires currently burning in the United States, and many, many more in various categories, we can’t report extensively on all of them, so today we will take a slice of geography and look briefly at seven fires spreading in the Central Idaho area, and extend it just a bit into Oregon and Montana.

Moose (Idaho)
The largest of these seven fires is the Moose, which has been chewing through eastern Idaho since July 17. As far as the cause, the Salmon National Forest says, after almost two months, it is “human caused,” which only eliminates the causes of volcano and lightning. Nine structures have been destroyed. On Friday 650 personnel are assigned to the 125,000-acre blaze which is 5 miles northwest of Salmon, ID. A satellite overflight Friday afternoon only found large heat sources in the southeast portion and that is where an additional 15,000 acres burned Wednesday night, prompting evacuations near Salmon.

Crews reengaged the fire and began preparing new contingency lines along the west edge of the city. Several water pumps, five log decks, and some portable water storage tanks (nicknamed pumpkins because of their shape and color) were destroyed Wednesday.  No firefighters were injured. Nearly 500 acres of the city’s Municipal Watershed burned that night, something the various incident management teams had been trying to protect since July.

Cooler temperatures, higher relative humidity, and thick smoke contributed to minimal fire behavior across the fire Thursday.

Indian Ridge (Idaho)
Northwest of the Moose Fire near the Montana border is the lightning-caused 8,670-acre Indian Ridge Fire on the Bitterroot National Forest. It is in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness 30 miles southwest of Darby, Montana. The fire has been active this week primarily along the western and northern flanks and north of Indian Creek as it burns through steep, rugged, remote terrain with heavy surface fuels and dead standing timber.

Indian Ridge Fire
Indian Ridge Fire the night of August 18, 2022. InciWeb.

The fire is not being fully suppressed. Their daily reporting says, “Fire managers are utilizing a point protection strategy to prevent any critical wilderness infrastructure from being negatively impacted by the fire.”

Dismal and Patrol Point
These two fires are very close to merging after significant growth since September 6, and combined have burned an estimated 23,000 acres. They are about 50 miles northwest of Salmon, Idaho. Smoke and the unavailability of infrared mapping aircraft have made it difficult to determine the current perimeters, but there is a lot of new burned acreage between the two fires. Recent low humidity and strong winds are in part responsible for the recent growth.

Areas that fire managers intend to protect include Cold Meadows Guard Station, Root Ranch, and Lantz Bar.

Fire personnel on the Williams Creek Fire
Fire personnel on the Williams Creek Fire in Idaho. InciWeb, posted 9-8-2022.

Williams Creek
The 11,881-acre fire is 5 miles west of Orogrande, near Wildhorse Lake, 7 miles southwest of Elk City, and 8 miles north-northwest of Dixie.

“Resources will continue to engage the fire in Orogrande and the Crooked River corridor, addressing and extinguishing hot spots and conducting damage assessments,” said a September 9 update from the Incident Management Team. “The fire and associated winds did impact structures and outbuildings; crews are still assessing the extent of the damage. Fallen trees, burned snags, and downed power lines continue to present safety hazards.”

Double Creek (Oregon)
The 137,000-acre lightning-caused Double Creek Fire is in Oregon just west of the Idaho border. It has burned to the Snake River in the Pittsburg Landing area. A River Group has been established to assess and protect structures along the waterway. The fire is being fully suppressed and crews are looking for locations to establish the control line farther from Lower Imnaha Road where topography allows. Two structures have been destroyed.

Trail Ridge (Montana)

The 13,000-acre Trail Ridge fire is on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Western Montana about 5 miles east of the Idaho Border and 4 miles southeast of Sula, MT. The cooler weather experienced Thursday and Friday was helpful in slowing the spread of the fire and decreasing the severity of fire behavior. It is burning above 7,000 feet elevation near the Continental Divide and there is no current or expected threat to private land and property. It is not being fully suppressed.

Ranger Jake describes the damage in Yellowstone National Park caused by the June 13 flooding

June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park. YNP image.

Yellowstone National Park released a video yesterday describing the massive damage to the park’s infrastructure that occurred June 13 when unseasonably warm weather, melting snow, and very heavy rain produced widespread flooding across the north end of the park. Yellowstone Digital Communications Specialist, Jake Frank, gives his first-hand account of the 500-year flood event.

These photos are still images from the video below.

June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park. YNP image.
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park. YNP image.
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park
June 13, 2022 flood in Yellowstone National Park. YNP image.

More information is at

Video of DC-10 dropping on a fire east of Helena, Montana

Tanker 914, a DC-10, dropping on the Matt Staff RD Fire
Still image from video of Tanker 914, a DC-10, dropping on the Matt Staff RD Fire. MT DNRC.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation posted an excellent video of air tanker 914, a DC-10, dropping retardant on the Matt Staff Rd Fire.

The fire has burned 1,538 acres 13 miles east of Helena, Montana between Canyon Ferry Lake and US Highway 287.

All evacuations on the fire were lifted at 8 p.m. Friday, August 5th.  Matt Staff Road is still closed to the public. Montana’s County Assist Team assumed command of the fire at 12 p.m. on August 5th. The cooler temperatures and brief rain Saturday morning were beneficial to firefighting efforts.

The drop

The terrain seen in the video is not extreme, but appears to be outside the parameters NASA expected for a very large air tanker such as a DC-10.

Here is an excerpt from the NASA report issued March 2, 2009, titled “USFS Very Large Air Tanker Operational Test and Evaluation.”

The analysis suggests that for level or gently rolling terrain where level to slight descents (< 6-7%) are required, VLAT-class aircraft could probably be employed with few restrictions as long as they remained above 300’ AGL during the delivery.

Check out the video below posted by Kevin Osborne showing a DC-10 making a downhill drop in 2012 on the Goff Fire on the Klamath National Forest in Northern California.

Names of fires

On a related subject, here is my plea for initial attack and dispatcher personnel to keep the names of fires simple. Fires are usually named after a nearby landmark or geographical feature. One word is preferred, but certainly no more than two. Think about how many times the name will have to written, spoken, and typed into forms. Will spelling be easy, or will it be misleading, such as “Camp Fire”, or Road vs Rd?

Elmo Fire spreads toward Lake Mary Ronan in Montana

We discovered it is difficult to find evacuation information

Updated 4:33 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire map, north end, 3-08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map, north end. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The fire continues to spread closer to Lake Mary Ronan.

A satellite overflight at 3:08 p.m. MDT Thursday detected heat from the Elmo Fire very close to the south end of Lake Mary Ronan.

There are many structures on the east side of the lake. The Incident Management Team said Thursday morning they hoped to keep the fire from spreading beyond Camp Tuffit Road.

Updated 3:23 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022.

The Elmo Fire which started July 29 continues to spread north toward Lake Mary Ronan. The south edge is secure along Highway 28, but firefighters are having a difficult time stopping the northward progression through the timber as it approaches the lake.

The fire was mapped Wednesday night at 20,616 acres. The east side of the fire is very close to Flathead Lake and it appears likely that the north side will reach Lake Mary Ronan.

Elmo Fire map 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map. The red dots represent heat detected by satellites at 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The white line was the perimeter at 12:53 a.m. August 1, 2022.

On Wednesday winds increased out of the southwest in the afternoon resulting in upslope runs, spotting, and significant growth on the north side, limiting firefighters’ ability to engage directly on the fire’s edge.  All areas of the fire were supported by numerous aircraft dropping water and retardant.

On Thursday firefighters are focusing on Camp Tuffit Road and are working to hold the fire as it approaches the southeast shore of Lake Mary Ronan. Firefighters are prepping structures and constructing secondary firelines.

The Flathead Beacon reported that four homes have been destroyed, quoting an information officer at the fire.

It is not easy to find up to date evacuation information for this incident. At InciWeb the last time it was mentioned was on August 2, 2022 (no time was included). It listed a change, then said “all prior evacuations are in effect.” But there was no link to “prior evacuations”.  The change at that time was to include “all residents residing north and south of Hwy 352 (Lake Mary Ronan Road) and all residents who live along Lake Mary Ronan. ”

Another announcement on InciWeb said, “At approximately 2 PM, Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 7 recommended the evacuation of the Lake Mary Ronan corridor to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

No date or time was included in the announcement, other than “three days ago.”

Our take
Ordering the public to evacuate and leave their homes is an earth-shattering event for most residents. It can mean the difference between life and death. Then there are the practical logistics of hauling off your critical medicines, documents, family photos, electronics, and pets, then finding a place to shelter which may involve a large expenditure of money.

For the Incident Management Team to treat the evacuation so casually, is not acceptable.

Firefighters do not order an evacuation. They may recommend it, but it can only be ordered and implemented by law enforcement. If the Incident Management Team does not have the current information, they should at least provide a link so someone can easily find this critical data. Assuming that the general public visiting InciWeb will happily mentally cut and paste little bits of evacuation information from multiple web pages to form a complete picture of whether they have to evacuate or not, is poor incident management.

I conducted a search in an attempt to find the information that may have been posted by a law enforcement or emergency management agency, with no success.

When I discovered this issue, I asked the Incident Management Team if they knew of one place where a citizen could get the information, and was told that it was on their InciWeb page under “Announcements.” The email reply was not signed by a person, just “Public Information, Northern Rockies Team 7.” Apparently no one there wants to be held accountable.

“If the announcement is a couple days old, then no changes have occurred to evacuations,” the reply said. “We will continue to post Evacuation updates here as soon as we hear from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

An Incident Management Team should either:

  1. Provide accurate, complete, easy to understand, current evacuation information. OR:
  2. Provide a link to a website that has the information.

If an Incident Management Team finds that their recommendation for evacuation has not been implemented, or has not been communicated to the public in a useful way, the Incident Commander should follow up. Maybe the local jurisdiction rarely has to implement evacuations and does not have a check list of all the steps that must be taken. It can be turned into a teachable moment. But the follow up must occur.

300 firefighters working to contain the Elmo Fire near Flathead Lake in Montana

Updated at 9:30 p.m. MDT August 1, 2022

Tim Sheehy, CEO of Bridger Aerospace, said each of the CL-415EAF scoopers dropped 101 times Monday. That is more than half a million gallons of water on the fire.

1:56 p.m. MDT August 1, 2022

Elmo Fire map 12:53 a.m. August 1, 2022
3-D map of the Elmo Fire, looking east at 12:53 a.m. August 1, 2022.

Since the Elmo Fire started Friday afternoon July 29 it has burned nearly 13,000 acres a half mile from the southwest shore of Flathead Lake 22 air miles south of Kalispell, Montana. Firefighters were able to hold the south side at Highway 28 but it spread north uphill into timber and more rugged terrain.

On Sunday the fire grew by about 2,000 acres and was most active in the northwest side in the Cromwell Creek area. Similar fire behavior is expected today, Monday, with short crown runs occurring in narrow strings of timber.

Firefighters were assisted Sunday by four single engine air tankers and four scooping twin engine air tankers, CL-415EAFs, operated by Bridger Aerospace. At times the CL-415EAFs worked together when refilling by scooping on Flathead Lake and dropping in sequence. Sometimes called “super scoopers”, they can each carry up to 1,425 gallons.

Scooping air tankers Elmo Fire Flathead Lake Montana
Scooping air tankers reload with water on Flathead Lake, Montana while working on the Elmo Fire. Bridger Aerospace photo.

The incident management team reported that the Bitterroot Hotshots worked Sunday in the northwest portion of the fire holding and improving existing line as fire activity allowed. On the northeast side of the fire the Idaho Panhandle Hotshots constructed line to the west.

Crews engaged directly on the fire’s east edge as well with a Type 2 Initial Attack crew working their way to the north. Numerous engines continued to patrol along Highway 28 extinguishing any remaining heat close to the road.

Elmo Fire near Flathead Lake, Montana
Elmo Fire near Flathead Lake, Montana. Bridger Aerospace photo.

Today firefighters along with heavy equipment and aviation resources will continue to hold and improve previously constructed fireline. Crews will construct direct fireline where possible and scout for other opportunities as needed.

Map Elmo Fire August 1, 2022
Map of Elmo Fire, morning of August 1, 2022.

Highway 28 is now open, but drivers may experience low visibility due to smoke.

Resources on the fire Sunday evening, in addition to the air tankers,  included a Type 2 incident management team (Northern Rockies Team 7), six hand crews, 26 engines, and 3 helicopters for a total of 293 personnel.