Summer fires affect local, statewide air quality
LAKE COUNTY – Smoke and wildfires are a routine part of Lake County summers. Though the memory of dense smoke in the region may be fading, thick wildfire smoke obscured views and filled the Mission Valley with a scent reminiscent of campfire several weeks ago.
Kristen Martin of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Meteorological Services and Smoke Forecasting program said that northwest Montana will likely experience a break from heavy smoke and the worst of the smoke may be over for the season.
She said that when the smoke was at its thickest, between Aug. 16 and 20, the region was being impacted by separate sources of smoke including fires that flared up in Libby, Hot Springs, and Glacier National Park to skies already hazy as a result of fires in Washington and British Columbia.
According to Martin, the smoke from those distant fires impacted the area because winds in Montana generally blow from the west. “If there are a lot of fires in Washington it is almost a certainty that some of that smoke will come our direction,” said Martin.
During the most intense smoke, air quality alerts were issued for all 56 counties in Montana. Martin said that though this is an impressive statistic, it’s not uncommon.
“Generally one or two times per year we have an event that spreads over the whole state,” she said.
Martin advised those worried about the level of smoke to visit the Today’s Air website at todaysair.mt.gov. The site provides information about current air quality in the region and recommends safe levels of activity to avoid smoke-related health effects.
Martin said that it's hard to predict which year will be smoky and which will not, and while this year was significantly less smoky than last, smoke levels were high in 2015 as well.
Glacier National Park fires
Some of Lake County’s smoke has come from wildfires burning in and around the national park this year. To date, five fires have burned within the park this summer, which sees an average of 14 fires each year.
The Howe Ridge Fire is the largest fire burning in Glacier National Park, at more than 12,457 acres on Sept. 2. The fire has prompted closings and evacuations in heavily traveled areas of the park, including Lake McDonald Lodge, three park campgrounds, and part of Going to the Sun road. As of Sept. 2, North Fork Road was closed from Fish Creek to Logging Creek.
According to Dave Soleim, Glacier National Park fire management officer, weather conditions this spring set the park up for this fire season with above average snowpack and below average spring rain. According to Soleim, a combination of warm temperatures, a lack of rain, and lightning created the conditions that started the fires in the park.
Current fire activity
The Rattlesnake Fire started Thursday, Aug. 30, 10 miles northeast of Hot Springs. As of Sept. 2, the fire was 1,200 acres and 50 percent contained.
The Garden Creek fire, burning two miles north of Hot Springs, started July 29th due to lightning. The fire covered 2,052 acres and was 100 percent contained as of Aug. 26.
A house fire in Plains started the Weeksville Fire on Aug. 10. The fire burned 54 acres and was fully contained on Aug. 25.
Lightning on July 11 started the Paola Ridge Fire near Essex in Flathead National Forest. The fire had burned 768 acres by Sept. 2. It is expected that crews will contain the fire by September 15.
The Howe Ridge Fire is burning near West Glacier and was 12 percent contained on Sept. 2. Lightning started the fire on Aug. 11 and the fire led to the closing of parts of Going to the Sun Road and evacuations in Glacier National Park. The projected containment date for the fire is Nov. 1.
The Coal Ridge Fire is burning in the Flathead National Forest 10 miles west of Polebridge, and was 50 percent contained on Sept. 2. The fire, which was started by lightning on Aug. 12 had burned 280 acres on Sept. 2 and is expected to be contained by Nov. 1.
The Whale Butte Fire was started by lightning on Aug. 12 and crews expect to have it contained by Nov. 1. The fire is burning 10 miles northwest of Polebridge and had burned 515 acres by Sept. 2.
A fire near the border of Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, in the Boundary Creek Valley, burned 2,084 acres by Sept. 2. The Boundary Fire is expected to be contained by Oct. 1.
Fires continue to burn in Washington and British Columbia, bringing smoke to Lake County.