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Western wildfires: Montana issues air quality warning due to smoke

CNN logo CNN 7/27/2021 By Steve Almasy and Dave Alsup, CNN
a tree in a forest: The Bootleg Fire, which started on July 6th near Beatty, Oregon, has burned more than 400,000 acres. © Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images The Bootleg Fire, which started on July 6th near Beatty, Oregon, has burned more than 400,000 acres.

Smoke from the Western wildfires has prompted officials in Montana to issue air quality warnings in a dozen counties.

"Air quality across the state ranges from MODERATE to UNHEALTHY, with the worst air quality concentrations occurring in the southern half of the state, south of the I-90 corridor. Air quality has worsened this morning, and will likely continue to worsen through Tuesday," Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced in a news release.

The department issued an air quality alert for Beaverhead, Carbon, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Missoula, Park, Pondera, Powder River, Powell, Ravalli and Sweet Grass counties. The state has 56 counties.

The heat is also an issue for residents. About 1.1 million people are under excessive heat warnings in parts of Montana -- and Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming -- but most warnings will end by Tuesday.

Firefighter found uninjured

A firefighter who was reported missing near Montana's border with Idaho has been found safe, authorities said.

The firefighter was working the Granite Pass Complex when he went missing on Sunday, a news release from the official information site for the fire said.

"The individual has been found, uninjured and safe. Thank you to all those who assisted and to our dedicated Search and Rescue Volunteers. We are thankful for the positive outcome!!" the Missoula County Sheriff's Office said in a message on Facebook.

The Granite Pass Complex is among several fire burning in the US, mostly in the West. At least 85 active large wildfires have charred 1.5 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This year, 36,467 fires have burned a total of 2,770,454 acres across the United States, the NIFC said.

An ongoing drought coupled with high temperatures continues to fuel flames in much of the West, threatening homes, prompting evacuations and destroying structures.

More than 22,000 deployed to battle fires

More than 22,400 firefighters and other personnel have been deployed to battle the flames throughout the US, the NIFC said.

The Missoula County Sheriff's Office issued an evacuation warning from Martin Creek on Highway 12 to the Idaho border as wildfires continue to burn in the area.

"Residents and visitors in the area should stay vigilant of the current situation and be ready to immediately leave the area if an evacuation ORDER is issued. If you are traveling along Highway 12 please do not stop," the sheriff's office said last week.

The dangerous fire conditions have already injured five federal firefighters who were working in Montana last week.

The firefighters were injured in the Devils Creek Fire when "a sudden wind shift blew the wildfire back over their position as they were constructing a defensive fire line on the perimeter," a news release issued by the Bureau of Land Management said Friday.

"Numerous wind shifts and rapid rates of spread resulted in erratic fire behavior as thunderstorms and associated cells were passing over the area when the incident occurred," the release said.

The bureau said the firefighters were evacuated and medically evaluated to "determine the extent of their injuries" following the incident on July 22 in Garfield County. An update on their conditions was not available.

Three more wildfires -- the Trail Creek Fire, the Alder Fire and the Christensen Fire -- are burning in Montana near the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, according the Forest Service Facebook page.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge is the largest of the national forests in Montana, covering 3.35 million acres within eight southwest Montana counties.

A hotshot crew has been deployed to the Trail Creek Fire to help prevent the fire from growing toward the east. The fire has grown to 31,124 acres since starting on July 8, the Inciweb incident map shows.

The fire worked its way up to the Continental Divide, with approximately 15 acres burning on the Idaho side.

Fire activity picked up at the Alder Fire on Sunday because of high winds and low humidity, growing to 8,347 acres with 10% containment, according to Inciweb.

The Christensen Fire continued to push east and has burned 4,070 acres, according to Inciweb.

Baby bear burned

A 6-month-old black bear cub with burned paws is recovering after being found by homeowners returning to their property in Markleeville, California.

The homeowners, the only residents allowed to return to their area, spotted the injured animal and called Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, which sent a team to catch the 21-pound male cub.

"Fortunately, the team was able to locate the bear cub in total darkness," officials with the wildlife care team said in a news release. "However, even with his injuries the cub still tried to flee."

The baby bear had severe burns to his four paws and was treated with pain medications and fluids. His paws were treated with Manuka honey, according to the release.

The bear was named "Tamarack" for the wildfire from which he was rescued.

Severe fire conditions fueling Bootleg Fire

As of Monday, more than 541,000 acres have burned in Oregon due to seven large wildfires, with the Bootleg Fire -- the state's current largest wildfire -- accounting for 409,611 acres charred since it sparked July 6.

The flames are 53% contained, according to Inciweb.

The more than 2,000 firefighters battling the Bootleg Fire have seen success in the batle against the blaze, according to public information officer Al Nash.

"We're making good progress and feeling good about what we've accomplished, recognizing there's still a significant amount of open fire line," Nash told CNN. "We have potential for thunderstorms and the biggest issue is the gusty outflow winds from thunderstorms, which can increase the fire activity."

Gov. Kate Brown told CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday she is worried high temperatures will continue to contribute to the spread of the Bootleg Fire.

"It's incredibly important with climate change, that we get into these forests and start doing the fitting and harvest and prescriptive burning, so that we can create healthier landscapes that are more resilient, for wildfire," Brown said.

She signed legislation last week that would arm the state with tools and resources to make communities "more adaptive" to wildfires. The legislation includes resources for adequate firefighting tools and prescriptive and mitigation efforts.

Dixie Fire exhibiting extreme fire behavior

In Northern California, there are more than 5,400 firefighting personnel battling the Dixie Fire, which has burned 197,487 acres and is 22% contained, according to Cal Fire. It is now the 15th largest wildfire in state history.

The smaller Fly Fire has merged with the Dixie Fire in the larger blaze's east zone.

"Engines are deployed in Taylorsville prepping for structure protection in the event the fire reaches the area as it continues moving northeast," Cal Fire officials said.

Plumas County Sheriff Todd Johns said Sunday that the Indian Falls area has undergone significant loss. In the small community, 18 of 25 homes are thought to have been lost, he said.

A wildlife rescue group is caring for the bear rescued in a small California community. © Wildlife Rescue A wildlife rescue group is caring for the bear rescued in a small California community. a man standing next to a forest: Scott Griffin surveys his property which was destroyed by the Bootleg Fire, in Sycan Estates, Oregon, U.S on July 24. © Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Reuters Scott Griffin surveys his property which was destroyed by the Bootleg Fire, in Sycan Estates, Oregon, U.S on July 24.
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