MISSOULA, Montana- Over half a million acres of timber have been lost to Montana wildfires this summer.
The Missoulian reports wind whipped wildfires around western Montana into a renewed fury overnight Saturday into Sunday, briefly trapping firefighters, burning buildings, and forcing new mandatory evacuations.
Synoptic winds, National Weather Service meteorologist Luke Robinson called them Sunday. “That’s the fancy word for it,” said Robinson. Also the polite term, given the havoc wreaked by the flames, the report explained.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the conditions out there are working in our favor today,” said Larry Bickel, public information officer for the Lolo Peak fire.
Near Arlee, 16 firefighters found themselves trapped between the Liberty fire and a spot fire Saturday. All escaped safely. East of Eureka, the Caribou fire doubled in size during a 4-mile run Saturday, burning “an unknown number” of structures and forced a full evacuation of the West Kootenai area.
Glacier National Park closed part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Sunday, evacuated the area around the Lake McDonald Lodge, and started removing historic artifacts from the lodge itself — all because of the Sprague fire, which last week destroyed the park’s century-old backcountry Sperry Chalet.
The long-problematic Lolo Peak fire in Ravalli County upped the ante yet again, necessitating more mandatory evacuations (see related story). The Little Hogback fire — part of the Sapphire Complex of fires near Rock Creek — also flared up, and the Granite County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations for 35 homes late Saturday night.
The Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake grew by more than 15,000 acres, and saw new evacuation orders and warnings issued Sunday in Powell County. And the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued a mandatory evacuation notice Sunday for people living near the West Fork fire near Libby, the Missoulian said.
Seemingly every few hours Saturday night and Sunday, the Red Cross sent out a new notice about the opening of another shelter for evacuees, the Missoulian says.
And, for a time on Saturday, not a single air quality monitor in the entire state of Montana registered Good air. The best was to be seen in Cut Bank, where a Moderate rating looked enviable. Sunday afternoon, the Missoula City-County Health Department listed air quality as Unhealthy in Missoula, Frenchtown, Clearwater, Rock Creek, Florence, Lolo, Arlee and Potomac. Air Quality was Very Unhealthy in Seeley Lake and Rainy Lake and expected to be Hazardous by Monday morning.
Throughout the weekend, starting Saturday afternoon and into Sunday, the usual twice-daily updates on InciWeb, the national wildfire information service, came fast and furious, including the harrowing report from the Liberty fire, the Missoulian reports
Sixteen firefighters working the Liberty fire outside Arlee are safe after being briefly trapped between the main fire and a spot fire last night, according to InciWeb.
Thirteen of the 16 firefighters, from a hand crew and an engine crew, fled east into a meadow — designated as a safety zone — on the north side of Liberty Creek. Three others tried to head downhill toward engines parked on Liberty Creek Road, but once at the road, were surrounded by heavy smoke and fire. They started to deploy their shelters, but wind cleared the air long enough for them to find an escape route to safety, according to InciWeb.
“All 16 are safe,” stressed InciWeb. Those in the meadow were picked up by helicopter and joined the other three at a rally spot, where all were medically assessed by a fireline EMT.
The National Weather Service forecast for Monday offered little hope. A Red Flag Warning — meaning, the high winds, high temperature and low humidity that are optimal for extreme fire behavior — remains in effect until 9 p.m. Monday.