Why are all your pictures gray this week?

August 26, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

For those of you living on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, allow me to inform you that the western half of this continent is currently on fire.  When I arrived in Missoula, the weather was mid-August normal, and looked like this:

Lolo National Park, MT

Now, it looks more like this:

Lolo National Forest, MT

There are fires in Montana, none threatening Missoula (some towns aren't so lucky), although that isn't why this area is so bad right now.

Map courtesy of Google 2015, via InciWeb.

I use InciWeb to track incidents all over the country (we also used it at Philmont to watch the fires in Arizona and Colorado).  We can see that along with the batch to the east, there are fires all across Washington and south-west in Idaho. 
Map courtesy of Google 2015, via InciWeb.

Map courtesy of Intellicast 2015.

The wind currents of the last few weeks, combined with several cold fronts that moved in mid-month, conspired to sweep the smoke from all of those areas and dump it into the Missoula valley, where it has remained.  We could see it coming, and now we can't see anything.  Some of these images appear elsewhere on my site, but this entire post is unedited, straight from the camera, to illustrate the severity of the situation.  Northwest Montana is under Stage II fire restrictions but the consistently low humidity means every lightning strike is a potential blaze, which can smolder for days before reaching a noticeable size.  Lolo National Forest has over 11,000 acres burning, and Montana has over 114,000 acres over approximately 25 separate incidents (this number fluctuates as crews suppress older fires and new incidents are reported).

Smoke from the west:

Lolo National Forest, MTThe smoke creeps in from the west.

That isn't the sweet morning fog - when I wake up there is ash on my tent like snow, and my clothes smell like stale campfires.

Lolo National Forest, MT

Lolo National Forest, MT

Mission Mountain Range, Flathead Indian Reservation, MT

That last photo was taken on MT 83, just north of Lake Alva.

Map courtesy of Google 2015, via InciWeb.

Some interesting notes about the new restrictions we're under:  Some lakes are being closed to recreational use so the helicopter buckets and boaters don't have "collisions".  Also, some areas have had problems with folks flying drones over or near the fires, interfering with aircraft and units on the ground (as if the firefighters weren't under enough stress already). 

So far we're safe here, and I'm being careful where I pitch my tent at night based on the wind, altitude, and the current fire locations.  The Forest Service is diligent about closing areas when appropriate, but a fire can travel uphill faster than a person could run (I don't recommend running anyway because breathing smoke is bad).  As soon as it rains a little and clears up I can get back to my old landscape routine - right now I'm limited to tracking down bears and chasing moose around.  Plenty of opportunities around here - just in the last 24 hours I've seen black bear, deer, one lumpy skunk (I declined to approach for a picture), and a red fox that trotted in front of my van for a quarter mile this morning.  Rush hour here is a little different.


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