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On strikes

Responders tackle more than a dozen lightning-caused fires

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One major fire and several smaller ones were burning on the Flathead Reservation Monday, after thunderstorms and persistent high winds hit day after day in a weeklong barrage that put stress on local fire resources. 

Governor Steve Bullock declared a State of Emergency on Sunday. 

“Montana is facing extreme fire conditions. This declaration will provide additional resources to the brave men and women fighting these fires,” Bullock said of the declaration. “As firefighters continue to battle blazes across the state, I encourage Montanans to be aware of fires in their area, obey any evacuation orders that may be issued, and ensure they’re not taking actions that might spark new fires.”

The order frees the path for more funds and to utilize members of the Montana National Guard to help fight fires. 

Fire starts on the Flathead Reservation got to hopping on Monday, Aug. 10 when a lightning storm moved through the area and sparked five fires that evening, some showing up on Tuesday morning. 

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire and volunteer departments got the small fires under control quickly. 

“Some of them had rain with them and that kept them not very active,” Division of Fire Prevention Specialist Devlin LaFrombois said. “Most were less than half an acre. Two reached about an acre and a half.”

The fires were widespread throughout the valley, with one in Polson, one in Irvine Flats, one along the Flathead River, and one near Arlee.

The fire in Polson was reported around 8 p.m. on Aug. 10 near a grassy, wooded, and residential area in the Ridgewater Development. It caused road closures as local law enforcement notified nearby homeowners that the blaze and high winds might prompt evacuation.

Polson Fire Department responded to the fire, which was lined and out within a few hours. A Division of Fire crew was on the scene Tuesday morning to make sure it stayed out. Tribal firefighter James Lozeau said the crew sprayed 1,500 gallons of water on the fire in the morning to put out smoldering hotspots.

A lightning bolt hitting a metal fencepost caused the blaze, according to Polson Fire Chief Clint Cottle.

The flames were “driven very quickly by high winds at the time,” Cottle said.

The Monday storms also knocked out power in Arlee, Polson, and Finley Point. Emergency crews worked all through the night to get power back on, and Mission Valley Power Environmental Safety Compliance Officer Arnold Sorrell said that the quick response was a testament to the power company’s hard workers. 

“Our tree group does a really good job maintaining the trees along the lines,” Sorrell said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Sorrell said people can help prevent outages and fires by reporting hazard trees to his office. 

“Especially this time of year it’s very important, (it’s) very dry with potential for (fire) danger,” Sorrell said. 

Things were quieter on Wednesday and on Thursday as only one lightning-caused fire was reported. 

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire and Ronan Volunteer Fire Department were on the scene of a fire in a wooded and residential area Thursday afternoon.

Planes dropped retardant on the blaze in Pablo off Kennedy Drive that was reported around 2:30 p.m.

A visible plume of smoke initially rose over the neighborhood, but planes knocked it down quickly.

“The air attack did a super job at spotting and suppressing it,” resident Dave Bartholome said of the response.

Barbara Rush had placed sprinklers on her lawn after the fire started, just in case it came closer to homes, but Rush said she didn’t immediately planning on packing up in case of evacuation like some of her neighbors.

Rush notified some of her next door neighbors to the blaze, because they didn’t notice the fire trucks or planes.

“They had no idea,” she said.

Ronan Fire Chief Mark Clary said that an ambulance was called because one responder was short of breath.

By Friday morning, the fire was almost out, with a crew of 10 mopping up the quarter-acre fire that was started by lightning.

Another round of lightning Friday morning brought six new fire starts on the reservation, including three large ones near Ferry Basin and two smaller ones in the Mission Mountains.

According to Division of Fire Prevention Specialist C.T. Camel, the Melton One Fire, near Melton Ranch in Hot Springs, was sparked by lightning in the morning, and by Sunday night it had reached 3,254 acres. The blaze was 30 percent contained. 

The Melton Two Fire, started nearby, had burned a little over 34 acres as of Sunday. It was the only fire on the reservation listed as not controlled or contained as of Sunday evening. A third fire in the vicinity has been named the Little Bitterroot Fire and it has burned 82 acres.

The large blazes have caused the closure of Moss Ranch Road, Race Horse Gulch, and Whiskey Trail in the fire area.

Another round of lightning strikes mid- Friday afternoon brought the start of two smaller fires in the Mission Mountains.

Some nearby residents were warned about a fire in a wooded area northeast of Minesinger Trail in Polson that was reported around 5 p.m. Polson Rural Fire and Division of Fire responded and worked their way up logging roads to reach the blaze, and extinguished it quickly. 

A fifth fire near McDonald Lake in the Mission Mountain Wilderness also burned .25 acres on Friday. Camel said the fire was not an immediate priority when it popped up because of a resource shortage and its remote location. It was contained and on patrol status as of Sunday evening. 

“We are running pretty thin on people right now,” Camel said.

Over the weekend, three more fires, all under three acres in size, started on the reservation and were quickly contained or controlled. 

Camel said that though the fires that started last week were natural, people can help reduce fire risk by following Stage 1 fire restrictions that are currently in place.

Actions prohibited under the restrictions include:

— Building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire except within a developed recreation site, or improved site.

— Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.

Fire danger on the Flathead Reservation remains at extreme levels. As of press time, temperatures were expected to be in the mid-70s to mid-80s throughout the rest of the week. Some days were forecast with a slight chance of thunderstorms. 


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