Wilderness fires now cover 8,000 acres

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The Rapid Creek Fire that was detected Sunday has merged with another fire and grown to more than 5,000 acres in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

A fire that rapidly expanded in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex has merged with another fire to the east to cover a total of 5,000 acres by Monday night.

The Rapid Creek Fire first was sized up at less than acre at midday Sunday, but in a few hours it had grown to 500 acres and by Monday morning it was estimated at 1,000 acres — and kept growing.

The fire followed an unburned corridor and moved east toward Straight Creek, with the possibility of burning into the heavily traveled Benchmark Corridor in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Northwest of the Rapid Creek Fire, a new fire was detected Monday afternoon in the wilderness and quickly became a major blaze. The Prisoner Lake Fire, burning north and northwest of the Rapid Creek Fire, was estimated to be 3,000 acres Monday night, compared to 175 acres Monday afternoon.

The fires are located on the east side of the wilderness about 27 miles west of Augusta.

The Rapid Creek Fire has been churning through heavy, beetle-killed timber across the Flathead Forest’s boundary with the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where it burned into the 700-acre Elbow Pass Fire and the 200-acre  Triple Divide Fire by Monday afternoon.

A management team was expected to arrive today to take command of what is now called the Elbow Pass Complex. 

Three hot-shot crews and three type 1 helicopters have been ordered to the complex. 

The growing Elbow Pass Complex and Prisoner Lake fire have prompted a series of trail closures in the wilderness. Additional trail closures are likely. Check inciweb.org for updated trail-closure information.

When fire activity picked up Monday afternoon, the fires were putting off towering smoke columns that could easily be seen from the Flathead Valley into the evening Monday.

The fires are targeted for suppression but they have been difficult to reach, said Wade Muehlhof, public affairs officer for the Flathead National Forest.

“The complex is being managed for suppression but rough terrain and unfavorable weather conditions are limiting our ability to apply resources,” he said.

In past years, the Forest Service has generally allowed a considerable number of fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex to burn for resource benefits. That’s not the case this year.

“It’s still relatively early in the season and with limited budgets, a hard look is being taken at all fires and where possible, they are being managed for suppression,” Muehlhof said. “We’ve had such big fires in other parts of the country that it’s really affected the budget for what we have here.”

Fires are being suppressed, even in the wilderness, to keep them from becoming larger and more expensive to manage.

“Each fire is still being evaluated, but there is an emphasis that if it’s safe to do so, more fires will be managed for suppression,” Muehlhof said.

Elsewhere on the Flathead Forest, the Coal Creek Fire in the North Fork Flathead drainage has been contained at 3 acres.

One wildland firefighter suffered minor injuries on the Coal Creek Fire and was transported to Kalispell Regional Medical Center via ALERT. 

The Condon Mountain Fire on the Swan Lake Ranger District was being attacked with water bucket drops but afternoon winds on Monday expanded the fire to 15 acres. The fire was renamed; previously it was called the Union Peak Fire.

A three-acre fire on Pentagon Mountain in the wilderness was at 3 acres and being suppressed by 13 firefighters.

On Monday, the Flathead National Forest elevated the fire danger to high.

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