In the hours following Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s announcement that the state had entered a fire emergency, Flathead crews worked to douse flames of small fires throughout the valley as the fire danger jumped to “very high” in Northwest Montana.
Throughout the weekend, dispatch reports listed fires scattered through the valley, from a grass fire on Big Mountain Road to a structure fire on North Meridian Road.
The danger inched closer to Kalispell city limits Sunday evening when the West Valley Volunteer Fire and Rescue and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation responded to reports of a grass fire just north of the city. The crews quickly put out the flames of the several-acre fire on the east side of U.S. 93 North, near the National Guard Armory.
Fire Marshall Ben Covington with the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department said the fire was large enough for several districts to get calls.
“You could see smoke on the horizon, so much so that we thought it was in our district,” he said. “It was large enough to create a concern, for us and Columbia Falls.”
THE WEEKEND’S list of fire concerns is an example of the dangerous conditions throughout the state.
On Monday afternoon, due to low moisture content of grasses, brush, and timber, along with a long-term forecast of high temperatures and minimal precipitation, Flathead interagency fire managers increased the fire danger to “very high.”
The interagency collaboration includes groups like the Flathead National Forest, the county’s Office of Emergency Services, Glacier National Park and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
According to a statement from the agency managers, since July 1 there have been 100 wildfires reported in Northwest Montana.
“While many were lightning-caused, most of these were human-caused,” the statement read.
Gov. Bullock issued the state’s fire emergency Sunday afternoon, which allows him to mobilize additional state resources and the Montana National Guard to combat the fires, as well as expend funds to meet the incidents and needs that may arise from them.
“Our top priority is ensuring the safety of Montanans, their property, and our communities,” Bullock said in a statement. “...As firefighters battle blazes across the state, Montanans must stay vigilant about active fires in their area, obey any evacuation orders, and prevent any actions that might spark new fires.”
Prior to signing the executive order, Bullock was briefed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Disaster and Emergency Services at the Department of Military Affairs.
He also spoke with Rick Connell, the Incident Commander at the Lodgepole Complex area, which is currently the state’s largest fire.
According to latest records, the fire has spread to 226,000 acres. There are 300 crew members working to subside the flames.
Monday afternoon, Sen. Jon Tester took to the Senate floor asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long to request additional resources for Montana.
He also asked Congress to treat wildfires “like any other natural disaster so responders can tap emergency funding in order to fight them.”
“Across Montana, over 250,000 acres have already burned and many of these fires continue to rage,” Tester said. “Montana’s communities are strong, tight-knit, and always persevere, but they expect more from their government.”
INCLUDED IN the state’s 21 listed large fires is the Monahan Fire. First reported on July 16, the lightning-caused fire is located between Monahan Mountain and the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex at Limestone Pass. That’s about 17 miles northeast of Seeley Lake.
As of Monday afternoon, the fire had grown to 494 acres. Of that, 278 of the burned acres are on the Lolo National Forest and 216 are on the Flathead National Forest. On Sunday afternoon, the Flathead National Forest assumed responsibility for the management of the fire from Lolo National Forest fire personnel.
As a result of the wildfire, several trail closures are in effect. Three Forest Service administrative cabins are within proximity of the fire and structure protection measures are in place.
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.