HAMILTON - Authorities in the Bitterroot Valley are raising the fire danger to "high" and placing an immediate stop to open burning as conditions dry out rapidly, and fires are starting to pop on forest lands.
Ravalli County commissioners were briefed by Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) and county fire managers Monday morning, with the board being told the soaring temperatures, combined with high winds, have caused an escalating drying of forest fuels.
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BNF crews have had to deal with several lightning-caused "hold over" fires in the past few days, small blazes that are sparked by passing storms but don't immediately ignite into a larger fire. While all of those have been contained, BNF Fire Manager Mark Wilson said a fire reported late Sunday near Skalkaho Pass could burn for some time.
Wilson explained the fire is burning in a scar from the fires of 2000, where the regrown forest is dense. He said BNF is working with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest on a plan to control the fire. Wilson said the fire is burning about 4-miles south of the Skalkaho Highway but isn't impacting the road at this time.
Ravalli County Emergency Management Director Eric Hoover said the county and local fire managers had discussed conditions Sunday and immediately suspended all burning permits. Commissioners decided to make that order permanent for the remainder of the summer immediately, rather than waiting until later in the week.
The ban on open burning still allows for smaller, recreational fires.
Wilson explained that the hot, dry weather of the past few days has quickly dried out the forest, even at the higher elevations, with the fire risk climbing rapidly and little precipitation in the forecast.
Wilson also said BNF is working the Salmon-Challis National Forest on resources to help with another fire that started over the weekend and is burning on both sides of the Salmon River near North Fork, south of Lost Trail Pass.
The Bitterroot National Forest announced Monday afternoon that the fire danger had officially been raised to "high."
When the fire danger is “high” fires will start from most causes. The fires will spread rapidly, and short-distance spotting is common. All fine dead fuels ignite readily, and unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape.
High-intensity burning may develop on slopes or in concentrations of fine fuels. Fires may become serious and their control difficult unless they are hit hard and fast while small.
Forest officials are asking the public to be extremely careful and to remember that it’s your responsibility to properly maintain and extinguish campfires.
Those planning camping trips should follow these fire safety tips:
- Keep campfires small and completely extinguish them before leaving camp. The best method is to douse the fire with water, stir the ashes and douse again, making sure that all ashes are cold to the touch. It is illegal to have unattended campfires.
- Smokers should light up only in areas cleared of all flammable debris. Cigarette butts should never be thrown from vehicle windows.
- Those exploring the forest and backcountry in vehicles must stay on established roads and trails and avoid driving over dry grass and brush that could be ignited by hot exhaust systems.
- Firewood cutters should operate chainsaws equipped with spark arresters in the cool morning hours and keep a shovel and fire extinguisher nearby.
- Fireworks are illegal on public lands: every forest, every campsite, every day. Never light fireworks in the woods.
- Recreational shooting? Take precautions! Never shoot into dry vegetation and always make sure you’re shooting in a safe location, away from roads, trails, campsites, and occupied areas. Be aware that shooting exploding targets is prohibited on National Forest System lands. For more information visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/visit/know-before-you-go/shooting.
- Know before you go. Always check with your local Ranger Station prior to your trip to get the most up-to-date information on fire danger and fire restrictions for the area.