By Emily Stifler
As of Sept. 6, there were 20 fires burning across Montana, ranging from a half acre, to the largest at 52,000 acres in the Custer National Forest.
The big winter and late spring has acted as a double-edged sword, said Seth Barker, Big Sky’s Interim Fire Chief. “More water means more vegetation growth, which, when it dries out in the fall, means more fuel load.”
Open burning was closed in late August but is now permitted in much of Gallatin County; Big Sky, Ray, Sourdough, Gallatin Gateway, Central Valley (Belgrade), West Yellowstone, and the Gallatin National Forest were all open to burning as of press time.
With recent rains, dropping temperatures, fewer thunderstorms, and higher humidity, wildfires aren’t quite as much of a concern as earlier this season, Barker said, which is why they’ve lifted the burn ban. The fire danger rating remains very high in the district, the National Forest, and in Yellowstone National Park.
“Be careful burning outside and don’t burn in the next couple weeks unless you absolutely have to,” Barker said. He wants Big Sky residents to know they can contact Big Sky Fire if they’d like a free urban wildland interface assessment.
Gallatin National Forest
The Gallatin National Forest has had a total of 15 lighting-caused fires and five human-caused fires this year, which have burned 612 acres. The fire danger rating is high in the forest.
Ten miles east of Gardiner, in Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the 600-acre Bull Fire is the largest burning in the Gallatin National Forest. This fire is being managed for resource benefit, said Forest Service spokesperson Marna Daley.
That “means it’s being monitored but is being let to play its natural role in the wilderness area and isn’t being suppressed,” Daley said. “At this point it’s just cleaning up dead and down materials.”
The Forest has a plan in place in case it becomes a threat to property or resources.
North of West Yellowstone, the one-acre Red Mountain Fire in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is also being managed for resource benefit. There have been recent lighting starts on Livingston Peak and in the Crazy Mountains, both of which were put out.
“With the predicted continued warm weather we really want people to be careful,” Daley said. “We’re getting to the point where it’ll be more difficult to catch these fires.”
Daly encourages safety with campfires and to avoid driving through tall grass in any type of vehicle.
“When the muffler heats up, if you’ve been driving for awhile it can ignite grass and cause fire,” she said. Chainsaws should have spark arresters, and anyone chainsawing should bring a bucket and a shovel to put out a spark-caused flame, she said.
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
Four resource benefit fires were burning in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as of Sept. 7, adding up to more than 3,500 acres. Fire danger in this area is rated high.
Two fires are burning near Phillipsburg, in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The 1,550-acre Lutz fire, and the 670-acre Copper Mountain Fire. Eight miles east of Wisdom, in the Pioneer Mountains, the Stewart fire is burning 1600 acres and is growing quickly. An emergency area closure was in effect on Sept. 7.
The 40-acre Whitetail Peak Fire, eight miles northeast of Butte, is burning in a rocky area and has been growing slowly.
The forest has red flag warnings due to the low humidity and high winds forecast for the next week, according to Leona Rodreick, a public affairs officer for the forest.
Yellowstone National Park
As of Sept. 6 five lightning caused wildland fires, managed as the Heart Complex, were burning in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. Other than limited temporary closures of some backcountry campsites and hiking trails, all park entrances, roads and services are open.
The fire danger rating in Yellowstone is currently very high, and the Park is encouraging visitors to be careful with campfires, grills, camp stoves and smoking materials. There have been 18 fires reported in Yellowstone this year.
Over Labor Day weekend the Point Fire on the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake increased to 1,100 acres, driven by steady winds and increasingly drier weather conditions. The fire is burning downed and dead logs with single and group tree torching behavior increasing in the afternoons.
As a precautionary measure, the Thorofare Trail was closed from the Nine Mile Trailhead to one mile south of the fire area. Smoke will likely be visible around the eastern edge of the lake and on portions of the East Entrance road.
The Gibbon fire, burning three miles southeast of Madison Junction, has seen little new fire activity and remains estimated at 16-18 acres.
Three other fires, the Ouzel, Huckleberry and Pitchstone, are all one acre or less in size. They are being managed as resource benefit fires “to allow natural processes to occur to enhance the area’s natural resources, to protect people and property, and to effectively use available firefighting resources,” according to a press release.
The Sour Fire, which was burning east of Canyon Village, and the Heart Fire, which was burning north of Heart Lake, were declared out at 1/10th of an acre, Sept. 4 and 6, respectively.