As a heat wave brought temperatures as high as 102 degrees to parts of western Montana over the weekend, the state’s summer fire season kicked off with two lightning-caused wildfires that quickly gained steam. 


The Colt Fire started 15 miles northwest of Seeley Lake on Monday, July 17, and by the afternoon of Friday, July 21 had grown to approximately 200 acres, as reported by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order on July 21 along Highway 83, between mile markers 27 and 31, after placing an evacuation warning for the area between Rainy Lake and Summit Lake.

Aviation resources work to contain the Colt Fire 15 miles west of Seeley Lake on Friday, July 21. Credit: John Adams/MTFP.

By midday on Saturday, July 22, Montana DNRC estimated the Colt Fire had burned 1,000 acres and was 0% contained. Ground crews focused on protecting structures northeast of the fire, while aviation resources including four CL-415 super scoopers and multiple large air tankers worked to drench hotspots to limit the fire’s spread, according to updates posted to Inciweb, the federal fire reporting website, and Montana DNRC’s Facebook page

Northern Rockies Complex Incident Management Team 1 was briefed on Saturday, July 22, and formally took command of the Colt Fire at 6 a.m. on Sunday, July 23. By noon on July 23, the Colt Fire had burned an estimated 1,575 acres and remained 0% contained, actively burning on all sides. Hot, dry, and windy conditions coupled with low overnight humidity allowed the fire to continue burning through the night. According to the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, winds are primed to pick up on Monday, July 24, when a “dry cold front” moves through the area. To date, the fire has cost $6.5 million and has 412 assigned personnel, including 13 crews and five helicopters. No structures have been lost, and the National Interagency Coordination Center estimates containment by late September. Following an infrared flight on the night of July 23, the Colt Fire is currently estimated to have burned 2,927 acres and is still 0% contained.

Additional evacuation warnings for the Colt Fire have been issued between mile markers 25.5 and 27 along Highway 83, for the north and south ends of Lake Inez, and for residents near the summit on Beaver Creek Road. The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office has instructed evacuees in need of shelter to call the Red Cross at (406) 215-1514. 


On Thursday, July 20, three days after the Colt Fire ignited, smoke was reported three miles southwest of Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area following a lightning storm. Two different fires were initially spotted in the Bowles Creek drainage: one blaze estimated at 50 acres, and another 1-2 acre fire on the Bitterroot side of the divide. The two fires merged to become the Bowles Creek Fire, which has since burned 1,258 acres and is 0% contained as of Monday, July 24.

Inciweb reports that hot, dry conditions favorable to fire growth are expected to continue for several days, with increasing winds and a slight chance of thunderstorms forecasted for July 24. Fire danger in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge and Bitterroot national forests increased from “high” to “very high” on July 24, and officials anticipate winds as high as 45 mph on Monday as a similar “dry cold front” moves in. 

Northern Rockies Team 8, a Type 3 Incident Management Team, assumed control of the Bowles Creek Fire at 6 a.m. on Sunday, July 23. According to a July 23 update from the management team, firefighters are using natural barriers and existing roads and trail systems — including fireline used during the 2022 Hog Trough Fire — to create “‘indirect’” fuel breaks away from the fire’s edge. NICC reports an estimated containment date of Oct. 15. 

Elsewhere in the region, Red Flag Warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service for eastern Washington, north-central Idaho, and west-central Montana in effect from the afternoon of Monday, July 24, until midnight. In the western portion of north-central Montana, the Red Flag Warning has been extended through Tuesday, July 25. According to the NWS, Red Flag Warnings indicate that “a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures” are currently occurring, or expected to occur within 24 hours. Additionally, the Wildland Fire Preparedness Level — which is “dictated by fuel and weather conditions, fire activity, and fire suppression resource availability” — increased from level two to three on Friday, July 21, both nationally and for the Northern Rockies Geographic Area. A preparedness level three indicates that two or more geographic areas require the assignment of “significant amounts of wildland fire suppression resources” from around the country.

Bowles Creek Fire smoke column on July 21, 2023. Credit: Inciweb.

Prior to the weekend’s heat wave, northwest Montana was already experiencing conditions conducive to wildfire due to moderate to severe drought and early melt-off of low snowpack. Significant wildland fire potential is projected to be above normal in northwest Montana from July through September, according to the National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services.

Current projections show a “normal fire season” for the rest of Montana, but that doesn’t mean fires won’t happen, according to Northern Rockies Geographic Area Meteorologist for the Bureau of Land Management Dan Borsum, who presented to Gov. Greg Gianforte during a fire season outlook briefing on Tuesday, July 18. 

“When we say normal fire potential … that still means fire,” Borsum said, adding that Montanans in the rest of the state should be prepared for fire risk to increase, especially as summer heat kicks in. 

Over the last four decades, the area annually burned by wildfires in the American West has doubled, according to a 2023 study. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies anthropogenic climate change as the “main driver” of an increase in weather that favors wildfire due to rising global temperatures and atmospheric thirst, which dries out fuels and contributes to wildfire intensity. 


Bowman Leigh is a graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. As a grad student, she received the Crown Reporting Fellowship and freelanced for Montana Free Press and Montana Public Radio before interning at Bugle Magazine. Bowman is MTFP’s fire reporting intern for summer 2023.