Updated satellite photo of wildfires in Western Montana and Northern Idaho

Above: Satellite photo of smoke from fires in Western Montana and Northern Idaho, August 22, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite.

(Originally published at 3:03 p.m. MDT August 22, 2017)

It has been many days since we were able to find a satellite photo free of clouds enough to see smoke from the wildfires in Western Montana and Northern Idaho, but today there were few clouds in the area. This photo from Tuesday afternoon shows less heat (the red dots) than what we were seeing one to two weeks ago.

More than a third of the large fires in the US on August 9 were not being fully suppressed

Above: Firefighters on the Liberty Fire in Montana, which is being managed using a less than full suppression strategy. Photo by Kari Greer.

(Originally published at 4:05 p.m. MDT August 10, 2017)

When we saw today that additional evacuations were required on the Sunrise Fire six miles south of Superior, Montana, a fire that is not being fully suppressed, we wondered how many fires are in that same less than full suppression category.

The table at the top of the national Incident Management Situation Report for August 10 (which uses data submitted the evening before) lists the number of uncontained large fires, but an asterisk leads to a note saying, “*Uncontained large fires include only fires being managed under a full suppression strategy.” The report today lists 24 large uncontained fires. After going through the 12-page document we found 13 other large fires that are not being fully suppressed, which is 35 percent of the 37 total large fires.

Unless you study the deciphering document about how to read the report, it is not obvious that any fires are not being fully suppressed. The column heading “Ctn/Comp” is the key. “Ctn” indicates the fire is being fully suppressed or contained, while “Comp” fires are not. Those codes are related to the column to the left which has a number referring to the percent contained (Ctn), or, the percent of the incident objectives that are complete (Comp) such as monitor, confine, or point zone protection on less than full suppression fires.

situation report
Example of the Situation Report from August 10, 2017. This is an excerpt showing some of the fires in the Northwest Area (Washington and Oregon). Click to enlarge.

Today’s report lists seven fires in the Northern Rockies Geographic area that are less than full suppression, the Northwest Area has five, and there is one in Northern California.

These 13 fires have burned approximately 99,000 acres, have 4,336 personnel assigned, and have cost about $79 million to date. The number of personnel is 28 percent of the total on all active uncontained fires, and the acres burned is 10 percent of the total.

The average “completion” for the 13 let burn less than full suppression fires is 19 percent. Most of them have estimated completion dates of late September to sometime in October.

Land managers who implement this strategy will tell you they want to restore fire to the landscape in an area where it has been unnaturally excluded, thereby enhancing the environment for plants and animals —  and people if it occurs near a wildland/urban interface. Reducing the vegetation, or fuels, can make it easier to suppress the next fire in the same area, perhaps resulting in fewer structures being destroyed. On fires like this they may completely stop the spread where it could damage private property, while only observing it or in some cases encouraging it to burn in more remote locations. The Incident Management Team on the Sunrise Fire included this in their status update on Thursday:

Over the next few days the team will work to slow the growth of the fire to allow for more effective and safe engagement by strategically introducing fire to unburned areas; lessening the likelihood for high-intensity and fast moving fire.

On the other hand, allowing a fire to spread over a period of months can have consequences, including producing smoke that contributes, along with full suppression fires, to an atmosphere that is unhealthy to breathe and puts more carbon into the air, millions of taxpayer dollars being spent, long-time exposure of firefighters to the hazards of firefighting, personnel being committed to long-term fires causing shortages on suppression fires, the inconvenience and expense of evacuated residents, and the possibility of fires uncontrollably burning private property and structures.

There is no easy answer. Scientists expect that the wildfire problem will get worse over our lifetimes and beyond. Continuing to do the same thing, that is, putting out most fires, is not going to produce different or better results. The population is growing and moving more into the wildland-urban interface while most local governments and insurance companies do little to regulate or mitigate this migration into the woods. Managers of parks and forests increasingly find themselves having to commit firefighters to protecting structures within or just outside their boundaries, while other sections of the fire spread with little resistance from depleted numbers of firefighters, equipment, and aircraft.

More evacuations ordered for the Sunrise Fire in western Montana

Above: 3-D map of the Sunrise Fire 6 miles south of Superior, Montana. The red line was the perimeter at 11:56 pm. MDT August 8. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 4:32 a.m. MDT August 10.

(Originally published at 12:02 p.m. MDT August 10, 2017.)

Cougar Gulch has been added to the list of areas under evacuation orders on the Sunrise Fire which has been burning since July 16 six miles south of Superior Montana. Quartz Creek and Verde Creek were previously evacuated.

Tuesday night the fire was mapped at 15,203 acres, but has added approximately 1,000 acres since then primarily on the north and northwest sides, and a small amount on the south side. It has grown to within less than a mile of Trout Creek Road on the west side.

map sunrise fire montana
The red line on this map of the Sunrise Fire was the perimeter at 11:56 MDT August 8. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 4:32 a.m. MDT August 10, 2017.

The Lolo National Forest is not completely suppressing the fire. Instead, they are stopping portions of it when they think it becomes necessary to protect private property. Thursday morning they released a statement that read in part:

Over the next few days the team will work to slow the growth of the fire to allow for more effective and safe engagement by strategically introducing fire to unburned areas; lessening the likelihood for high-intensity and fast moving fire.

On Wednesday burnout operations continued in the Quartz Creek and Verde Creek areas with hand and aerial ignition. The northern edge of the fire now extends into the head of Cougar Gulch.

Thursday’s plans are to continue burnout operations on the north side of Quartz Creek drainage to reduce fuel loading around structures. Firing will continue in Verde Creek.

Sunrise Fire
Smoke rising from the Verde Creek area on the Sunrise Fire. Inciweb. Undated and uncredited.

400 firefighter hand crews are deployed on fires in the United States

Above: A firefighter ignites a burnout on the Powerline Fire southwest of Pocatello, Idaho. Uncredited Inciweb photo, posted August 6, 2017.

(Originally published at 12:48 p.m. MDT August 6, 2017)

Wildland firefighters are much busier this year than in a typical year. To date, fires have burned 46 percent more acres than the 10-year average — 5,820,802 acres vs. the 3,962,906 average. In some years fire activity in Alaska, where many very large fires are not suppressed, can inflate these numbers, but so far that state can only account for 626,786 acres, not a huge number for Alaska.

400 hand crews, usually comprised of 20 people each, are deployed nationwide, along with 949 fire engines, and 120 helicopters for a total of 16,673 personnel.

map powerline fire
Map showing heat detected on the Powerline Fire southwest of Pocatello, Idaho by a satellite August 5 and 6, 2016. The red dots are the most current, at 4:04 a.m. MDT August 6. Some areas with light vegetation, such as grass, may have burned and cooled before the satellite overflight and were not detected.

Here are brief descriptions of some of the larger or more prominent fires:

  • Powerline (see the map and photo above): Since it was reported Friday night this fire has spread very rapidly. Saturday it was very active on the northeast and southeast sides. Using satellite data the Incident Management Team estimated early Sunday morning that it had burned over 40,000 acres, but that is a very rough guess. More accurate mapping by fixed wing aircraft will provide better numbers. The satellite information indicated that by 4:04 a.m. Sunday it had spread to within 6 miles of Pocatello, Idaho. It is moving into steeper terrain with heavier fuels, offering more resistance to control and is the #2 priority in the Great Basin Geographic Area according to the national situation report.
  • Mammoth Cave, southwest of Carey, Idaho. Since it started August 4 it has burned three structures and 30,000 acres. It is the number 1 priority in the Great Basin Geographic Area.
  • The Shoestring Fire between Shoshone and Gooding, Idaho has blackened about 12,000 acres since it started August 5. It is the #3 priority in the Great Basin Geographic Area.
  • The Rice Ridge Fire northeast of Seeley Lake, MT is the #1 priority in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area and is threatening over 1,000 structures. It added almost 700 acres on Saturday to bring the total to 7,740.
  • The Sunrise Fire, 12,900 acres, the #2 priority in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area, grew by 600 acres Saturday. It has been burning since July 16, growing every day, adding several hundred acres daily on the east or northeast sides. It is now mapped at 12,900 acres.
  • The Hanover Fire, in a very remote area 15 miles northwest of Riggins, Idaho, was extremely active on Saturday. The Incident Management Team reports that it has burned 4,479 acres.
  • Parker 2, 10 miles east of Alturas, California. It was very active Saturday, adding 5,300 acres, growing to 7,100 acres.
  • Minerva 5, just south of Quincy, California. It has burned 4,088 acres and the voluntary evacuation of the town has been lifted. Firefighters completed a firing operation Saturday night.
 sawyer Minerva 5 Fire
A sawyer on the Minerva 5 Fire, August 2, 2017. Inciweb photo, uncredited.

Fires in Western Montana still very active

The fires are consuming thousands of acres each day and producing large quantities of smoke.

Above: Satellite photo taken August 1, 2017 showing smoke produced by wildfires in western Montana and Northeastern Idaho. The red dots represent heat detected by a sensor on the satellite.

(Originally published at 10:48 a.m. MDT August 2, 2017)

The residents of Western Montana have been dealing with wildfire smoke for several weeks and there is no relief in sight.

Our map above identifies eight of the largest blazes in the area. Here are a few facts about some of them, with them ranked in priority order according to fire management officials.

  • Rice Ridge: Six miles north of Seeley Lake, MT; 3,994 acres, 150 personnel assigned.
  • Sunrise: Six miles south of Riverbend, 9,900 acres, 548 personnel assigned.
  • Sapphire Complex: Three fires, 15 miles southeast of Clinton, MT, 12,756 acres, 864 personnel assigned.
  • Lolo Peak: 8 miles southwest of Lolo, MT, 5,724 acres, 822 personnel assigned.
  • Arrastra Creek: 6 miles northwest of Lincoln, MT, 3,675 acres, 127 personnel assigned.
  • Whetston Ridge: 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg, MT, 3,621 acres, 30 personnel assigned.

Another community evacuated near Sunrise Fire in western Montana

Above: 3-D map of the Sunrise Fire looking west. The red line was the perimeter at 9 p.m. MDT July 30, 2017. The white line was the perimeter two days earlier.

(Originally published at 5:55 p.m. July 31, 2017.)

During the last two days the Sunrise Fire west of Missoula, Montana 6 miles south of Riverbend has continued to work its way down the slopes near the small communities west of the Clark Fork River, moving to within 1.5 to 0.3 miles of the river. As of Sunday night it had burned about 8,200 acres, an increase of 2,700 acres in the last two days.

Another community, Verde Creek, has been added to the evacuation orders that already included Sunrise, Quartz Flats, and Quartz Creek.

The areas of major growth on Saturday and Sunday were on the north and southeast sides.

Sunrise Fire
The Sunrise Fire, July 30, 2017. Photo by Kevin Chaffe.

On the south side, the fire continued to burn into the Quartz Creek drainage; retardant was used to slow its spread downslope. On the north side in Sunrise Creek, the fire made an aggressive uphill run towards Eagle Rock and Verde Saddles.

Hotshot crews conducted controlled burning operations to reduce fuels in the Sunrise and Quartz Flats Communities while helicopters and air tankers were busy on all areas of the fire.

Resources assigned include 14 hand crews, 6 helicopters, 31 engines, 5 dozers, 14 water tenders, 4 skidgens, and 1 masticator for a total of 494 personnel.

All articles about the Sunrise Fire can be found HERE, with the most recent at the top of the page.