Fire officials say weather holds the key

August 19, 2018

Weather plays a big role in the beginning of wildfires as well as how quickly they grow and when they will end, and that will be the case with this year’s fires that are burning in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest.

That was one of the main messages that was delivered to a crowd of at least 150 people by firefighting professionals at a community meeting Saturday evening at Columbia Falls High School.

Bob Toven, an incident meteorologist with the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team 2, spoke about a backdoor cold front that could bring high northeast winds Sunday night, something that both firefighters and homeowners in the area don’t want to see.

“A dry cold front that is coming in could produce winds 20 to 25 miles per hour,” Toven said. “We may get some rain, maybe one-tenth of an inch, but at this point, with how dry it’s been, we’ll take anything we can get.”

Toven said by the middle of the week the weather will likely return to dry and warm as winds from the southwest return.

“It looks to stay that way for a while, and at this point we’re waiting for snow,” Toven said.

Residents from the area, including West Glacier and the North Fork area, had the most questions.

Paul and Christine Lautenschlager thought the meeting was good and informative, but they still have major concerns about whether the Howe Ridge Fire will come back around toward them.

“We were here when the Robert Fire (2003) burned right up to the golf course and now it could happen again,” Paul Lautenschlager said.

The Robert Fire torched 57,570 acres.

The couple also have friends that lost some of the historic Kelly Camp buildings at the north end of MacDonald Lake.

“It’s a shame and we know they are doing what they can. In hindsight, maybe they could do something differently, but it moved awfully fast,” Lautenschlager said.

John Pierson, the Southwest Area Type 1 incident commander, said what is challenging is the wildfires that are burning all over the west that have kept firefighters spread thin.

“There have been 5.8 million acres burned with 26,000 firefighters working to contain them,” Pierson said.

Officials said there were 350 firefighters working on the four fires in the area, including Howe Ridge, Paola Ridge, Whale Butte and Coal Ridge.

Rocky Gilbert, the operations chief for the team, said heavy equipment operators are doing a lot of the work now, putting in fire lines on Paola Ridge and waiting for it to get to areas that are less steep so it can be safely fought.

For Coal Ridge, it is sitting in a basin and wind hasn’t affected it much. On Whale Butte, good access to it through logging roads has made it easier to deal with.

There will be another community meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at the Sondreson Community Hall in the North Fork.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker can be reached at (406) 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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