By Michael Howell
With forest fires raging on all sides and the Gold Pan Fire Complex fire in particular having crossed into Ravalli County, the Ravalli County Commissioners declared a state of emergency on Monday, August 26.
Bitterroot National Forest officials informed the commissioners on Monday morning that the Gold Pan Fire burning southwest of Conner in the Frank Church Wilderness had crossed the border. Based on the hot, dry and windy conditions, that are not expected to change substantially in the immediate future, the commissioners determined that the wildfires burning in the vicinity present a local emergency situation.
According to Disaster and Emergency Services Director Ron Nicholas, there is no immediate need for any evacuations but if things worsen, evacuations could be ordered. He said by making an emergency proclamation the commissioners open up access to funding to pay for firefighting resources from the state and elsewhere should some emergency situation develop that stretches county resources beyond their limit. The emergency proclamation has to be in place for those funds and resources to be acquired.
“It’s good to be one step ahead in the game if that happens,” said Nicholas. The proclamation also allows for the imposition of an emergency levy of up to 2 mills to pay for the extra resources should they be required.
“There were 130 lightning strikes last night,” said Nicholas. “At this point the proclamation is a formality, but it will be very useful should we need it.”
The lightning-caused Gold Pan Complex Fire started on July 16 and as of Monday had burned approximately 37,000 acres. About 276 people are assigned to the fire. Sunday’s storm brought 25 new lightning strikes in the fire area. As the storm approached, winds began to increase fire behavior, causing firefighters to start the structure protection pumps and move up to Nez Perce Pass. Prior to that, work was continuing along the Magruder corridor. The eastern portion of the Gold Pan fire continued to back into the bottom Blue Joint Creek drainage and towards Jack the Ripper Creek. A K-Max helicopter was used to slow the spread in Blue Joint Creek. The storm moderated the fire behavior and reduced its progress towards the Magruder road. Primary fire behavior on the Nez Peak is creeping and smoldering. The Nez Peak fire is currently being managed as full suppression, though due to safety concerns primary suppression is through air resources. The fire activity near Round Top Mountain was also slowed by the storm. Goat and Thirteen fires are in monitor status.
On Gold Pan fire, work will continue along roads to keep travel routes clear. Buildings have been wrapped and sprinkler systems are in place on bridges and other wooden structures. Crews have completed contingency lines and will work to improve these lines ahead of the fire spread. Actions to slow the fire spread between current fire edge and contingency lines will be taken as opportunities allow. Helicopters with buckets are being used on the leading edge of the fire in the Blue Joint drainage as well as other active areas as long as conditions allow.
The road closure order was adjusted on Monday, August 26, on the southern boundary of Closure Area B to allow public access to Deer Creek trail #139.
Little change in the weather is expected in the next few days. Thunderstorms are still possible, and as storms come through the area there are likely to be some higher gusts of wind. There is no significant long-term relief in the forecasted fire weather conditions.