Fire forces evacuation
Madison County fires continue to grow: Monument, Wigwam fires pose largest concern
ENNIS—The Monument Fire southwest of Cameron, first detected on August 6, continued to grow over the weekend and measured 4,215 acres as of Monday morning.
A second fire, the Wigwam Fire, was first detected on August 11 and has grown to almost 2,000 acres. Both fires are currently zero percent contained.
Over the weekend the Forest Service conducted a flyover of both fires to take infrared images of the area. Once that’s done, technicians evaluate the infrared photos and can more accurately estimate the acreage of the fires.
They can see where heat is most concentrated, as well as localized heat that may signal a hotspot and give a clue as to where the fire may spread next.
Evacuations were ordered for part of the Haypress Lakes subdivision southeast of Ennis, and the rest of the division and the Boiler Springs area are under evacuation order as well. The area between Boiler Springs and the Shining Mountains subdivision is under evacuation warning.
Dave Sabo, a District Forest Service Ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, is the public information officer for both fires, and says the main concern when deciding how to fight the fires is identifying the values at risk.
“In fires like the ones you see in California, those values are structures, property and people,” Sabo says. “When we first detected the Monument fire, we were way out ahead of it thinking, what kind of fuels can we get rid of out here?”
There are no inholdings in the area where the Monument Fire is burning, and at least at first, it wasn’t threatening any structures or subdivisions.
Because of its location, sending firefighters in directly to the fireline would have endangered their lives. Downed trees and standing snags would have made it nearly impossible to assist the firefighters if someone got injured or became trapped.
Instead, crews looked ahead to the fire’s potential path and began reducing the amount of fuel it would have as it traveled.
But over the weekend, a cold front moved in, which Sabo says always brings with it strong winds from the southwest.
“When that happens,” Sabo says, “you just get out of the way.” The Monument fire exploded from less than an acre on August 6 to nearly 2,000 acres by the end of last week and continued to grow over the weekend.
The fuel in the Monument’s burn area is primarily subalpine meadows and whitebark pine, says Sabo. The types of trees that cover those meadows drop cones every year, which means a blanket of tinder-dry fuel covers the ground in pinecones, bark and branches. The trees are clustered in stands, which poses one other challenge.
“Up there, you can have little embers shoot out across those meadows,” Sabo says. “And those then catch other stands of trees.”
That’s one reason Monument grew so exponentially quickly over the weekend, helped along by above-average temperatures and extremely low atmospheric humidity.
As firefighters and the Forest Service were trying to get the Monument Fire under control, they detected a second burn beginning over the weekend.
The Wigwam Fire is burning in the drainage of the same name, on Forest Service land west of Cameron. The main threat there is the fire’s trajectory: those same southwest winds threatened to push it off USFS land onto privately-owned acreage, increasing the threat to structures in the area.
The first course of action to protect those structures is to seek resources at the county level, says Sabo.
So, Madison County’s fire departments were some of the first to respond to begin structural protection and fuel removal.
“We’ve had resources come over from four of five surrounding counties,” says Sabo, including Beaverhead, Jefferson and Park counties. “We asked if they have anyone they could send over, and they just came rolling in.”
Once county resources have responded, the next course of action was to involve state manpower, which is where the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) came in, then federal manpower, the U.S. Forest Service.
The response teams for both the Monument and Wigwam fires are now unified commands; with county, state and federal resources all working together.
The Monument Fire still poses too much safety threat for firefighters to get close to the fireline, but helicopters and retardant planes have been working to control the burn while firefighters focus on limiting the perimeter of potential fuels in order to restrict the fire’s expansion.
In the meantime, a Red Cross shelter was set up at Ennis High School over the weekend for evacuees, and their livestock moved to the Ennis rodeo grounds. County and Forest Service officials passed out fliers to nearly 30 local business to keep them up to date on the status of the fires, and a public meeting was held Sunday, August 12, at the Madison Valley Rural Fire Department’s station in Cameron, which drew nearly 100 people.
At the meeting, in addition to staying in the loop, concerned residents could sign up for Madison County’s code red system, which Sabo says, “operates like a reverse 9-1-1 call.” When an incident or update occurs, residents countywide get a notification on their cell phone.
“Everybody’s been safe so far,” he says. “And that’s the main priority. That system is a really great resource to keep people notified.”
The Monument and Wigwam are only two of a slew of fires across Montana, but they are the two highest priority burns in the Northern Rockies Region.
When a new fire emerges, Sabo says, it gets reported to the National Interagency Coordination Center, which ranks all nationwide fires based on priority. The highest priority fire in the country is currently the Cougar Creek Fire in Washington and Oregon, a 25,000-acre blaze that is five percent contained and isn’t expected to be out until mid-September.
The Monument Fire, NICC reports, is estimated to be controlled by August 26. The high priority ranking may make the fire danger seem extreme, but it’s actually a good thing, because it means that the responders to that fire have more access to the resources required to put it out.
“As the fire grows, so does the complexity,” he says. “You need people to handle logistics and a wider span of control.” A higher priority ranking allows for just that.
The Monument Fire has only recently been upgraded to incident Response Level 2, meaning more resources will be directed its way. That means everything from more firefighters and engines to public information officers, technicians and logistical management.
There are currently 11 large, uncontained fires in the Northern Rockies region, and eight of those are in Montana:
• As of Monday morning, the Bacon Rind Fire in Yellowstone National Park had doubled in size to 1,321 acres. That fire is 16 percent contained, has cost over $1 million to fight so far, and isn’t expected to be out until October.
• The Goldstone Fire on the Idaho border is 515 acres and zero percent contained.
• The Cougar Fire in the Idaho Panhandle is 3,500 acres, 50 percent contained and not expected to be controlled until late November.
For up-to-date information on the status of fires across Montana and the country, visit inciweb.nwgc.gov. The National Incident Management Situation Report can be accessed at nifc.gov/nicc/sitreport.pdf.
Virginia Creek fire update: 67 acres, 30 percent contained
MCALLISTER – As of Monday morning, August 13, according to Arlee Staley, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Recreation Technician, the Virginia Creek Fire, located about five miles west of McAllister, in the drainage of the same name, has grown from 15 acres to 67 acres in size.
Staley says the fire is still burning in heavy concentrations of mixed conifer (sub-alpine fir, Engleman Spruce, lodgepole pine) fuels with very heavy concentrations of standing dead trees and logs on the ground.
However, firefighters have the fire 30 percent contained.
Resources from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Madison Valley Volunteer Fire Department working on this fire.
All told, 30 people are involved, including: two fire engines, down from four last week; one water tender, down by one from last week; and a 20-person hand crew, reduced by six from last week. The helicopter used to fight this fire is also reassigned.
“Fire personnel have made good progress on this fire” Staley noted. “Resources will continue working to put out any hotspots near the perimeter.”
Last week, fire personnel were working to keep the fire from advancing past the Meadow Creek and Virginia Creek roads and from burning over the ridgeline above the fire on the southeast side.
On Monday, Aug. 7, firefighters had a hose around the perimeter of the fire and continued mopping up the edges of the fire for any hotspots.
Virginia Creek Road No. 1249 and trail No. 6314 remain closed in order to provide for the safety of firefighting personnel and public.
Smoke will continue to be visible from Norris Hill south to Ennis for the next few days to come.
Meanwhile, the Fire Weather Forecast had dry conditions and seasonal temperatures for Monday, with light to moderate northeast winds developing that afternoon.
High pressure and warmer temperatures were likely Tuesday. Wednesday showed warm weather and west winds of 5- 10 mph, and some potential thunderstorms Thursday through Saturday.
During this time of high fire danger, people are reminded to be careful with all fires; be sure to extinguish campfires completely and to keep motorized vehicles on roads and trails. Fire restrictions are not in effect on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, however, people are encouraged to keep informed of other area restrictions by going online to https://firerestrictions.us.
Currently, there are 62 uncontained large fires in the nation, which are filtering smoke into Montana’s valleys.
Information about these fires can be found on Inciweb at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov.
The entire nation is currently at a Planning Level Five (PL5), which indicates that there is large fire activity occurring in multiple geographic areas and a heavy commitment of crews, aircraft, and equipment to these incidents, along with a forecast for continued hot, dry, windy conditions.
During PL5, as fires grow and additional resources are needed, it can take longer for resources to be assigned to a fire due to the limited number available.
However, the Northern Rockies Geographic Area (which includes Montana, northern Idaho, and North Dakota) along with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is at a Planning Level Three (PL3).
“PL3 indicates mobilization of resources nationally is required to sustain incident management operations in active Geographic Areas (GA’s),” according to Staley.
For more information, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/bdnf.