With smoke season darkening skies across the western United States, two wildfires have emerged in the last week in or near Jefferson County.
On the evening of Thursday, Sept. 8, officials identified a fire in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest burning along the north side of Kit Carson Road. An employee for the forest service told The Monitor that evening that the incident, nicknamed the Lockhart Fire, had burned 2.5 acres and had "quite a few hands on it." Both the forest service and local volunteer crews responded.
The Department of Natural Resources lists the cause of the fire as human.
On Monday, Sept. 12, Jefferson County Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator and Fire Warden Doug Dodge said the Lockhart fire was well contained "with occasional small smokes found interior of the fire." The Forest Service was continuing to patrol the fire as needed, Dodge said.
Three days after the Lockhart Fire sparked, officials reported flames in Powell County, near the Jefferson County line.
The so-called No Grass Creek fire, burning above Cottonwood Lake and 10 miles north of Whitehouse Campground, had spread to 424 acres by mid-Monday, dusting residents of Basin and Comet with smoke and ash, according to reports on Facebook.
And by Tuesday morning, the No Grass Creek Fire had more than doubled in size. "An [infrared] flight [Monday] night confirmed that the fire is 1,003 acres and grew mostly to the west and northwest," Chiara Cipriano, public affairs officer for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest told The Monitor. The fire, she said, was just one mile outside of Jefferson County on Monday. Tuesday morning's map of the fire show that the flames have since moved closer to the county line.
Dodge said the growth of the fire was expected, despite it spreading in the opposite direction of that he had expected Monday.
At that point, he said, fire officials anticipated northeasterly winds, shifting to southeasterly in the evening. The fire, Dodge said then, ranked low on the Haines Index, used to indicate the likelihood for wildfires to grow more extreme by "measuring the stability and dryness of the air over a fire," according to The U.S. Forest Service.
"The likelihood of the fire crossing into Jefferson County appears low at this time. No county resource needs or action requirements are expected," Dodge said Monday morning.
Fire personnel will continue to monitor the fire, Cipriano said, and anticipated moisture throughout Tuesday should help slow the spread. The fire is not threatening private property at this time.
"With the current forecast, the fire is still not anticipated to impact Jefferson County in a significant way, as it is burning in a remote area with limited access," Dodge told The Monitor on Tuesday. "We will continue to coordinate with the Forest Service for the duration of the fire."
The Lockhart and No Grass Creek fires came only a few days after a post in Nextdoor Montana warned residents of critical fire weather conditions. That same day, the National Weather Service issued a high-wind and heat warning for Jefferson County and several surrounding areas; a storm which created the perfect fire conditions.
Nextdoor is a social media site designed to connect members of a community. The Nextdoor post urged Montanans to create and practice a wildland fire action plan with their families and cited montanafireinfo.org as a resource to do so.
Montana Fire Info, a website "dedicated to helping [Montanans] learn how to live better with wildfire," has information on preparing properties for wildfires, creating evacuation plans and reducing the harmful impacts of wildfire smoke.
For much of the last week, Jefferson County residents have gone about their lives under a thick cloud of wildfire smoke.
The haze creeped into the valley on Sunday evening. By midnight that evening, the Department of Environmental Quality Helena Air Monitoring Station recorded 113.5 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter which causes air pollution, compared to only 39 micrograms per cubic meter that morning.
The presence of air pollutants peaked in the early Monday morning hours with an average of 136.5 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 by 2 a.m.
Other air quality monitoring sites listed significantly higher levels of smoke pollution in Jefferson County.
Montana Fire Info encourages residents to prepare before the smoke arrives by stocking up on HEPA filters for their HVAC systems with a minimum efficiency reporting value of 13 or higher.
Homeowners can also establish a clean room in their home. "Seal windows and doors to prevent outdoor smoke from entering, add an air purifier or DIY box fan filter, and make sure the room is free of particulate-causing activities like cooking or frying foods, smoking, vacuuming, burning candles or incense, and using aerosol sprays like air fresheners," the site explains.
Montana Fire Info also recommends that residents pack an evacuation bag in the event that evacuation becomes necessary.
Although the air quality in Jefferson County has returned to somewhat normal measurements and cool fall air sweeps through the area, the Lockhart fire proves that fire season has yet to wrap up.
Dodge cautioned: "We don’t have any other fires of concern at this time, but with the dry conditions we still urge the public to use extreme care with any activities that could spark a fire."
The Monitor will update this story as information becomes available.
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