Montana firefighters expecting high winds

A red flag warning is in effect this afternoon through tomorrow, with a dry cold front predicted to bring strong gusty winds from the northwest at 20 mph with gusts up to 40 mph. Firefighters on the 20,000-acre East Sarpy Fire east of Billings, Montana, will focus on structure protection instead of building fireline. The fire area is not heavily populated, but it includes some ranch homesteads and the Westmoreland Sarpy Creek coal mine.

[UPDATE: The Sarpy Hill Complex is estimated at 51,000 acres this afternoon.]


East Sarpy Fire at noon 08/01/2012
East Sarpy Fire at noon 08/01/2012

Portions of the fire over the last two days have jumped dozer lines. “Everything we tried didn’t work,” said a veteran helicopter manager. An additional five crews will work on the fire today, along with 20 more engines. Crow tribal engines worked through the night, along with Big Horn County Rural Fire resources, dozers, graders, water tenders, and local ranchers. A Type 2 team will take over the fire today.

The East Sarpy and West Tullock Creek fires burned together late yesterday, and the Dawes Fire burned actively all night. East of Dunmore, residents could see the glow of the Little Dry Creek fire, which is a priority today.

Three other fires recently burned more than 15,000 acres north of Winnett. Crews have contained the Wolf Creek, 15-Mile, and Dovetail lightning-caused fires earlier this week. To the east, Rosebud County crews are working on 28 fires burning in the county. Carole Raymond, Rosebud County’s disaster and emergency services coordinator, told the Billings Gazette that the largest of the fires is burning between Rosebud and Butte creeks.

“That’s the biggest one and they don’t have it even kind of handled,” she said. “It’s just running on them.”

Montana firefighters busy, tankers committed

Montana fires are picking up, and a cold front is expected to bring high winds to the region tomorrow.

The Missoulian reported that the Bitterroot National Forest was staffing three active fires between Sula and Stevensville, all lightning-caused and no more than three acres in size. Crews are being demobilized on the 2,500-acre Chrandal Creek Fire.

According to the Helena Independent Record, the week’s forecast includes dry and warm weather with a chance of thunder and lightning. Paul Nutter, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said the agency’s concerned about fire danger. He said Thursday’s weather will include gusty winds and continued dry conditions, with temperatures in the 80s. July precipitation was only 0.6 inches — normal is 1.12 inches.

Aerial scouts with the Lolo National Forest flew parts of the Scapegoat Wilderness on Tuesday, looking for hikers in the path of a new wilderness fire showing a high potential for growth. The Missoulian reported that the Falls Point Fire grew to 300 acres on Monday and was burning actively Tuesday in the North Fork of the Blackfoot River drainage about 13 miles north of Ovando.

Chrandal Creek Fire smoke drifts over the valley on 07/25
Chrandal Creek Fire smoke drifts over the valley on 07/25

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center noted numerous new fires in the last 48 hours.  Smokejumpers were assigned yesterday to the Goblin Gulch Fire southeast of Great Falls. The fire was at 20 acres by late morning and a ‘shot crew was on order. Resources were also ordered for the 100-acre Chain Butte Fire northeast of Lewistown. Kusicko’s Type 2 IMT was ordered in late afternoon for the 100-acre Butler Fire 28 miles northwest of Missoula. Three airtankers and a lead plane were assigned.

The 3,000-acre East Sarpy Fire was reported this morning about 23 miles southwest of Colstrip. Four airtankers and a lead were assigned, with a Type 2 team on order. The Goblin Gulch Fire grew about 160 acres overnight; it has a lead and an airtanker committed, as does the Butler Fire.

Lead 12 and Tanker 40 are assigned to the Bear Hill Fire southwest of Anaconda. Just after noon today a new set of fires was reported. The Rosebud Complex in Rosebud County includes the 2,000-acre Juniper Fire, the 200-acre Butte Fire, and the 150-acre Midnight Fire. Benes’ Type 2 team has been ordered.

Wilderness Fires in Utah and Montana

The Dallas Canyon Fire, about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, was mapped today at 43,610 acres. Ignited by lightning on July 27, the fire’s burning in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area southwest of the community of Delle. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the fire area includes sensitive habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, and wild burros — along with raptor nesting grounds.

Resources on the fire include about 360 firefighters, and Erik Haberstick’s team put the fire at 60 percent containment this morning.

Another wilderness fire, the Rapid Creek Fire in the Bob Marshall, took off yesterday. The Great Falls Tribune reported that the fire is 27 miles west of Augusta.

Rapid Creek Fire
The fire was reported at about noon on Sunday by two different lookouts. It was estimated at 3,000 acres late yesterday, burning in heavy timber and mountain pine beetle kill, and it grew to over 5,000 acres by this morning.

Dave Cunningham with the Lewis and Clark National Forest said an incident management team and air resources have been ordered; fire behavior has included sustained crown runs. The Rapid Creek Fire yesterday burned over the Continental Divide and into the Triple Divide Fire, then into the Elbow Pass Fire. Sheriff’s deputies and USFS personnel contacted cabin owners and others in the area and warned them that the fire could move toward the Benchmark Corridor.

The 700-acre Elbow Pass Fire in the Scapegoat started on July 12 southwest of Augusta, and the Triple Divide fire west of Augusta is at about 7 acres.  The complex is being managed as a suppression fire.

Montana: fire near Helena burns homes, forces evacuations

Corral fire, Helana, MT
Corral fire, a few miles northwest of the state Capitol building in Helena, Montana. Photo by Chris Denning

The Corral Fire just northwest of Helena, Montana has burned three homes and forced some residents to evacuate. Below is an excerpt from an article at helenair:

The Corral Fire in the Scratchgravel Hills continued to burn actively Tuesday morning, officials said. About 150 firefighters worked through the night on the fire from a variety of volunteer, federal, and state agencies.

“This fire has a lot of potential,” said John Huston, a fire manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. “There has been a good amount of fuel reduction work done in the area, but ground fuels are deep in places and the terrain is rough for engine access. Helicopters and hand crews are going to play a key role on Tuesday.”

Two DNRC helicopters were joined by two Montana Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters in battling the blaze, which started late Monday afternoon.

Fire officials are concerned about an approaching cold front with possible 30 to 40 mph southwesterly winds, which could begin around noon Tuesday.

The Corral fire has grown to more than 700 acres; there have been no human or livestock casualties, but 3 homes and a couple of cars have burned. Smoke has been too thick to allow a more complete assessment of the damage.

Map of Corral fire at 1107 pm June 25, 2012
Map showing heat detected by satellites at 11:07 p.m. MT, June 25, 2012, on the Corral Fire. MODIS/Google

The video below is a 15-minute time-lapse of the fire:

More information about the fire can be found at Lewis & Clark County and InciWeb.

3 Montana families sue USFS over escaped prescribed fire

Three families in Montana whose property burned when a prescribed fire escaped on the Helena National Forest are suing the federal government, seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial. The Davis prescribed fire northwest of Helena, Montana escaped on August 26, 2010 and burned over 2,000 acres of private and U.S. Forest Service land. Approximately 450 acres belonging to multiple landowners burned.  The three landowners in the suit own a total of 296 acres and claim “total destruction” of their property.

Below is an excerpt from the Ravalli Republic:

“The Davis Fire took place under extreme weather conditions consisting of gusty winds and very warm temperatures. In fact, the prescribed fire was set during a fire weather warning,” John Heenan, the attorney for the families, wrote in the lawsuit. “The Forest Service failed to follow its own guidelines for proper prescribed fire implementation in starting the Davis Fire.

“Had the Forest Service notified plaintiffs, they would have been able to take measures to protect their properties and/or ensured that the Forest Service took measures to do so.”

Wildfire Today covered the Davis Fire extensively in 2010. We wrote the following on November 22, 2010 after the U.S. Forest Service released their report on the incident:
Continue reading “3 Montana families sue USFS over escaped prescribed fire”

Reaction to al Qaeda forest fire arson threat

Wildfire Today reported on May 2 that a magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. The article gave detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in order to set wildfires in the United States and Australia, and specifically suggested Montana as a choice location. The magazine article led the national news programs for a couple of days. Here are some of the reactions that have surfaced in response.

Dr. Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

…But [Dr. Bergin] said Australian authorities had recently adopted more sophisticated approaches to firefighting, including surveillance and land clearing measures.

The article provides specific examples and statistics of devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland. It does not mention the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.

The article talks up the devastation caused by fires and provides details about the best times of the year to start a fire in different parts of Australia.

The article says of past fires in Australia: ”These fires ruined the dry before the green, exhausted lives and properties, wiped out a lot of farms and houses, destroyed thousands of trees that are used in manufacturing and created an atmosphere of terror and panic.”

Montana’s Missoulian:

An al-Qaida threat to burn Western Montana’s forests hasn’t had the intended effect on Darby Marshal Larry Rose.

When the terrorist organization’s English-language magazine recently advised its readers to use forest fires to destabilize the United States, it used the fires of 2000 as an example — and said Western Montana was the ideal location for such an attack.

Specifically it recalled how in August 2000, “wildfires extended on the sides of a valley, south of Darby town. Six separated fires started and then met to form a massive fire that burnt down tens of houses.”

The magazine suggested using “ember bombs” to ignite forests, providing instructions for building trigger mechanisms and advice about the best weather conditions to promote big burns.

“My comment is the forests are pretty much all burnt up,” Rose said on Friday. “What more would they burn here?”

The fires of 2000 burned nearly 400,000 acres of the Bitterroot Valley, including much of the hillsides around Darby. Most were started by lightning during an extremely dry summer.

The idea that jihadist infiltrators might build upon their 9/11 World Trade Center destruction by torching trees hadn’t sparked much coffee-counter conversation, Rose said. It also hadn’t produced any alerts from the Department of Homeland Security for heightened vigilance.

The U.S. Forest Service:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the U.S Forest Service, works closely with its partners within the intelligence community, including both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice on any terrorist threats, including threats of this nature,” said Forest Service spokesman Brandan Schulze. “We are asking Forest Service employees, law enforcement and the general public to continue to be vigilant for any signs of wildfires, and to report unusual circumstances or situations that seem out of the ordinary for outdoor recreation on all public lands.

A video from ABC News:

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Thanks go out to Chris and Dick