Acreage number of fires surpass 2000 season



Montana - The 2003 wildfire season has officially surpassed that of 2000, both in the number of fires fought and the acreage burned in the northern Rocky Mountains.

And the season is far from ended, Regional Forester Brad Powell warned Saturday. "It might be easy to think we are on the downhill side, but there is still a lot of fire season ahead of us. Even the most optimistic projections show another two or three weeks before we have any chance of season-ending precipitation."

As of Saturday, there have been 3,278 wildfires in the northern Rockies, compared with 3,237 reported for all of the 2000 fire season.

This year's fires have burned 665,811 acres regionally, with many still growing. In 2000, wildfires burned 596,632 acres.

At the Fish Creek Complex west of Missoula, incident commander Joe Stam - who earlier this year presided over the Roberts fire outside West Glacier - said the nine-day forecast shows no significant change in the weather.

"We've still got a lot of fire and a lot of work to do," said Stam. "And for at least the next week, we're not really seeing any chance of season-ending weather. But that also means no significant winds, so that is good news."

Stam said residents of the Petty Creek area will be allowed to return home at 10 a.m. Sunday, but could be asked to leave again if the fire danger increases. Residents of West Fork Petty Creek, Eds Creek and Gus Creek have been out of their homes for 10 days.

Under the new evacuation request, homeowners can re-enter the area, but should not bring back possessions that cannot be easily re-evacuated.

Firefighters continue to make good progress on the fire, Stam said. Saturday's work plan included another three miles of burnout on the northeast side of the Thompson Creek fire - the largest in the complex, at 25,000 acres. Also in progress was a burnout on the southeastern perimeter.

Stam's incident management team will host an open house at its command post near the Ninemile Ranger Station from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The public will have a chance to see the fire camp and meet with firefighters.

To date, the Fish Creek fires have burned 30,856 acres.

Here are updates from other major wildfires burning in western Montana:

Blackfoot Lake Complex: The vexing fires burning around Hungry Horse Reservoir remained active Saturday, but made no major runs, according to fire information officer Heather Callahan. "It was just continued, steady burning. But that's good compared to earlier in the week."

The Mid fire, which has burned 8,361 acres in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, was added to the complex Saturday morning, although firefighters are not yet assigned to the fire.

Most of the attention continues to be focused on the Beta Lake and Doris Ridge fires, which have burned nearly 4,000 acres. Hungry Horse Reservoir remains closed because of the fires, as does Forest Road No. 895 on the reservoir's west side.

Robert fire: Fire information officer Carey Jones reported "nothing dramatic" at the wildfire that has now burned for 39 days in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest.

On Howe Ridge, several fingers of fire burned together to create one large burn, Jones said. Helicopters dumped water on the nearby Middle Fork and Rampage fires, but could not be used until 2 p.m. because of a thick layer of smoke.

An infrared flight was planned for late Saturday night, and the fire's 48,000-acre perimeter will almost certainly have expanded, Jones said.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday, the North Fork of the Flathead River will be open from Polebridge to Big Creek. But the public must take out at Big Creek, as the river and the forest on either side of the North Fork Road will remain closed through the burned area.

The Big Creek Campground also will open for overnight use, and Glacier Institute's education center will be able to resume operations on a limited basis.

The west side of the North Fork Road remains closed to public use; the closure includes all roads that leave the North Fork Road to the west.

Wedge Canyon: A thick lid of smoke kept helicopters grounded in the North Fork until about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Firefighters have used the aerial water drops aggressively in recent days, hoping to quiet the fire's southeastern and northern perimeters.

Hand-line construction continued in the Trail Creek area, and structure protection remains in place there - including sprinklers. Mop-up continued around homes in the Teepee Lake area. Fire managers reminded residents that evacuations remain in effect from Moose Creek to the Canadian border. Teepee Creek Road is closed because of snags.

Wedge Canyon's incident command team hosts a nightly meeting at Polebridge, always at 8 p.m.

Beaver Lake Complex: Steve Frye's Type I incident management team turned over responsibility for the Beaver Lake Complex to a Type II team from the Eastern Great Basin, making Saturday a "show-and-tell day" on the fire.

Located on both sides of the Montana-Idaho border off U.S. Highway 12, the fires have burned 24,500 acres. Firefighters reported no significant growth in that acreage Saturday.

"We've had some cooler, calmer days that allowed us time to get some good work done," said Murray Shoemaker, fire information officer. "But things are drying out and heating up, so these fires still have some potential in them."

The complex includes nine fires. As part of Saturday's transition, the North Howard and Sally Ridge fires were pronounced 100 percent contained and were handed over to the Lolo National Forest for monitoring and further mop-up.

Black Mountain fire: The 7,061 acre Black Mountain fire west of Missoula is 85 percent contained and firefighters are working toward a Tuesday containment date, said fire information officer Christie Achenbach.

Crews worked Saturday on the southwest side of the fire to hold and improve containment lines. Occasional smoke was visible well inside the fire's perimeter but mop-up and fire line rehabilitation will continue on the fire.

Sunday, she said, looks like more of the same.

"So we're winding down," Achenbach said, happily.

Cooney Ridge Complex: Trouble spots continued Saturday in the northeast part of the Swartz Creek drainage outside of Clinton but the fire wasn't advancing.

"We're making progress but it isn't real fast progress," said fire information officer Pete Davis. "We're letting it burn back down the hill to get it to the bottom where we can work with it," he said.

A fire in the watershed of Gilbert Creek also is showing quite a bit of activity, and firefighters are burning out a line there now.

"We're making some progress but adjacent to that, to the north, there's a real ragged edge of the fire, as the ops (operations) guy said, 'a real mess.' We can't tell where the fire line is - not our fire line but the perimeter of the fire itself," Davis said.

Firefighters are approaching the blaze systematically, cleaning up the fire to the east and the spots and tongues here and there. They're working the fire west so that when they get to the main body of the fire they won't have to worry about it trapping people, he added.

With other fires in the region quieting down, a low-priority fire in the Welcome Creek Wilderness is now getting attention. Fire crews can see flames here and there under the canopy.

"We don't know if there are large or small areas (of fire). Tomorrow we'll send field observers in and then develop a strategy to deal with it," Davis said.

Helicopter bucket drops and hand crews ferried in by helicopters are starting to mop up smaller fires in the wilderness.

A new Type II team, the North Idaho incident management team, has taken over fire control of the Cooney Ridge fire, which has burned 22,870 acres and is still 55 percent contained. The cost to date for fighting the fires is $10.9 million.

Gold 1: A new Type II incident crew is waiting for an escape route before heading into the steep, inaccessible country where the fire is still burning, reported Dellora Gauger, fire information officer.

At 80 percent containment, the part of the fire line that is not complete is east of Owens Point.

"Tomorrow, we're planning to have a couple of crews go in and begin direct line construction there," Gauger said. "It's directly up against the black (burned section)."

The total burned acres, 8,296, hasn't changed in several days. The new crew, which took over Saturday morning, faced "nothing that wasn't expected," Gaugen said.

About 369 people were on the fire Saturday.

Lincoln Complex: "It looks like they'll try some burnout on the Snow-Talon" fire located north and northeast of Lincoln, fire information officer Sadie Campbell said Saturday. "They've got some islands in there that did not burn - green fields."

Plumes of smoke rose from the fire Saturday while some of those islands burned. About 430 more acres burned due to low humidity and high temperatures.

"We haven't experienced that for the last couple of days," Campbell said.

The 34,666-acre fire was around 40 percent contained and structure protection was still in place in the event fire activity picks up significantly, she added.

Firefighters were concentrating on mopping up hot spots on the Moose-Wasson fire southwest of Lincoln. It is 100 percent contained and has covered 2,004 acres.

"There hasn't been a whole lot of activity in the last couple of days, so we're making a lot of progress," Campbell noted.

About 600 firefighters were working on both blazes.

Crazy Horse fire: A burnout started Friday in the Red Butte Basin of the Crazy Horse fire near Condon continued Saturday. Dropping humidities helped contain 70 percent of the fire which has covered 10,500 acres, said fire information officer Sarah Cooper.

Some burning occurred in the Hemlock Drainage, an unsecured part of the line, she reported. Another burnout probably will be conducted Monday if the weather permits.

The expected date of containment is Sept. 15. Personnel have been reduced to 407, and the fire has cost $9.9 million through Saturday.

Mollman fire: A dispatcher with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said firefighters at this fire outside Ronan in the Mission Mountains Wilderness are letting it burn up into the rocks.

"There's nothing new with it," he said.

Fire information officer Germaine White said that smoke was visible from the valley floor and the fire grew two or three acres to a total of 175.

"We're continuing water bucket drops from a helicopter on the west flank," she said. A small air tanker is reinforcing containment lines on the south flank.

A forecast of decreased winds in the next few days may lead to a check of the down-slope fire growth.

The fire is 30 percent contained.

Little Salmon Complex: Structure protection at Big Prairie historic ranger station and the Spotted Bear Lookout took precedent in the Little Salmon Complex in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on Saturday.

The lookout was not completely wrapped to protect against fire, so that work will continue Sunday, said fire information officer Jane Weber.

A helicopter dropped buckets of water on the High fire and smoke was found in the southern boundary of the complex. The Leota fire was active, too, but an inversion prevented a good look at it.

Weber is concerned about the relative humidity which stays in the teens at night.

"That's not a good sign. It would be nice if it were higher," she said.

"We continue with warm, drying days as we move into next week, so we're really watching things," she added.

The Mid fire has been reassigned to the Blackfoot Lake Complex so the acreage burned in the Little Salmon - 34,710 - reflects that.

The complex now includes 15 active fires: eight wildland fire use fires - Little Salmon, Pagoda Mountain, Lime Creek, Independence Park, Salmon Point, Casey Creek, South Spud and Little Hammer - and six suppression fires that are more than 15 acres. Those include Gordon, Gyp, Crimson, Molly Creek, Leota and High.

As of Saturday, 10 fires have been declared out or suppressed and six have been combined with other fires.


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