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Massive Idaho wildfire advances 4 miles into Montana

August 31, 2012 6:00 am  • 

HAMILTON – Firefighters began establishing a new camp in the West Fork of the Bitterroot on Thursday to fight a portion of an immense Idaho wildfire that has spilled into Montana.

Somewhere between 150 and 200 firefighters will be based there to fight the fire that has advanced about four miles into the state, said Brian Harris, a fire information officer on the Mustang Complex fire.

“This fire is so large and so massive and the weather has been so uncooperative that firefighters have only been able to put speed bumps in front of the fire in an attempt to slow it down,” Harris said. “The crews in Montana will take that same tactical approach.”

On Thursday, the fire had burned to within two miles of the Hughes Creek area in the West Fork, where the closest homes are located.

Some structure protection work has started in that area, with crews installing sprinklers and removing fuels in some instances, Harris said.

The Bitterroot National Forest implemented an emergency area closure on the West Fork District that included the Mine Creek Road, Divide Trail and Trail No. 650. The Hughes Creek and Woods Creek roads remained open.

Darby District Ranger Chuck Oliver said there is also some concern about the proximity of the fire to the Lost Trail Ski Area.

Late Thursday afternoon, the fire was about 12 air miles away from the ski area.

“We don’t want to give people any indication that the fire is imminent,” Oliver said. “We are just beginning to talk about the what-ifs so we can start preparing contingency plans should the fire move this way.”

On Tuesday, the fire made an unusual late night, early morning run over 30,000 acres and moved about seven miles closer to the ski hill, Oliver said.

“It took another pretty good run yesterday,” he said. “It appears to be wanting to push a little more to the north right now.”

So far, the Mustang Complex fire has burned more than 196,000 acres of timber, sage and grasslands.

On Thursday, about 30 residents in the center of the North Fork/Gibbonsville corridor were told to evacuate their homes as the fire neared that location. At this point, there are no evacuation notices for Montana residents.

At this point, U.S. Highway 93 remains open to travel.

“At its closest point, the fire is about five miles away from the road right now,” Harris said. “That information is based on what we had yesterday. I can look out the window and see some active fire behavior right now.”

There were no new fires reported on the Bitterroot National Forest Thursday.

Firefighters continue to monitor several small fires that kicked up on Wednesday, including one in the Fred Burr drainage that was in an area too steep for firefighters to access.

Air quality conditions in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys deteriorated Thursday afternoon from smoke pouring in from Idaho. The forecast calls for a smoky start to Friday, but relief should arrive later in the day, as west to northwesterly winds pick up.

“That looks like it will help get the smoke out of here,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Luke Robinson.

Saturday’s afternoon winds will be the strongest, he said.