Lightning started at least 40 new fires in Montana Wednesday, and Montana National Guard troops are being mobilized to fight fires, as Big Sky Country approaches a top five fire season in terms of acreage burned with no end in sight.
At around 6 p.m., the main building of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park burned down due to the Sprague Fire.
According to reports, firefighters had been staged at the Chalet over the past week, but high winds Thursday pushed the fire closer before overtaking the main building.
According to InciWeb, all firefighters on scene are safe and actively working to save the remaining structures.
The Sperry Chalet, a back country hotel built in 1913, had been closed since August 15 due to wildfires in the area.
Across north Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and the Yellowstone National Park area, 62 new lightning starts were reported Wednesday, and at least 40 of those were in Montana, from one end of the state to the other, said Mike Richmond, a meteorologist with Predictive Services of the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.
That lightning sparked fires in fuels as dry as hardware store lumber.
“There’s going to be more popping up today,” Richmond said.
That’s because smoke was so heavy in the state Wednesday that planes couldn’t fly to check conditions and record all of the new fire starts.
As of Thursday morning, 34 large fires are now burning in Montana. A large fire is 100 acres in timber and 300 acres in grass.
At least three new large fires were reported as a result of the lightning storm, including the 50,000-acre Sarton draw fire near Broadus in southeastern Montana. That fire grew 40,000 acres on Wednesday, Richmond said.
John Grassy, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Resources and Conservation, said the Montana National Guard has begun to mobilize troops to serve as fire crews.
They are hoping to have six crews of 20 firefighters ready by the weekend, he said.
To date, fires have cost the state $46.6 million with a “burn rate” of $700,000 per day, Grassy said.
State Budget Director Dan Villa said Wednesday the state fire fund would be depleted by the end of the week.
Gov. Steve Bullock said that would not impact nor impede firefighting efforts. Officials said money would be taken from this year and next year’s forestry fund.
“It’s a challenge,” Grassy said. “We’re moving fire resources around the state that need it the most. We’re going to keep fighting every fire that comes up until the season’s over.”
That might be a while.
It will be dry in western and eastern Montana for at least the next 10 days, Richmond said.
As of Thursday, fires had burned 721,000 acres in the Northern Rockies, which includes north Idaho, Montana, and the Yellowstone National Park area.
The Sheep Gap fire nine miles west of western Montana's Plains was one of the new fires sparked by a lightning storm Wednesday. (Photo: InciWeb)
That’s the seventh-largest amount of acres burned in a fire season.
“We have two more dry weeks coming up for north Idaho and Montana,” Richmond said. “I feel reasonably confident we’ll be up to a million acres by the end of September. That would put us in the top five fire seasons for the period of record in for the region.”
The extremely dry conditions come as bird and big-game archery hunters head out for opening day of those hunting seasons this weekend.
"Hunters are going to be in the field under some of the most extreme conditions we've seen in the state," Grassy said. "We very much need their vigilance and cooperation in terms of knowing what the fire restrictions are for the area they are going to be hunting in."
Bullock on Thursday asked Montanans to be ever vigilant as they celebrate Labor Day weekend, being careful not to spark fires and add to the inferno now burning across the state leaving the air choked with smoke.
“Folks, it’s this easy: Don’t start a campfire,” he said.
Bullock said people should enjoy the Labor Day weekend and have expectations, “But it’s dangerous out there.”
Bullock said 125 aircraft have been deployed as well as 400 engines 4,000 personnel and 250 Montana National Guard troops are being mobilized to fight fires.
Officials said it was hoped the Guard members would be able to free up more experienced firefights to fight other blazes.
Bullock was joined at the news conference in the Capitol by Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, Gen. Matthew Quinn of the Montana National Guard, Director John Tubbs of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Delila Bruno, division administrator for the Montana Department of Emergency Services.
The region is breaking records for dryness and fire danger, Richmond said.
Western Montana's Missoula and Helena's central Montana are experiencing their driest summers on record. The region as a whole is among the top three of four driest on record, Richmond said.
Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this story.