Dry lightning that passed through the Mission Valley late Saturday, July 29, and early Sunday, July 30, ignited multiple new fires on the Flathead Indian Reservation and Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana. 

Four new fires are collectively burning an estimated 21,792 acres on the Flathead Indian Reservation, in addition to the 1,991-acre Big Knife Fire east of Arlee, which ignited during a dry thunderstorm on Monday, July 24. Seventeen new starts have also been reported on the Flathead National Forest with additional smoke reports being investigated, according to a press release shared Tuesday, Aug. 1.

All five fires currently burning on the Flathead Reservation are being managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire, with a Complex Incident Management Team scheduled to assume supervision of the Big Knife Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 2. 

The Middle Ridge Fire, burning in grass and brush 15 miles west of Ronan, is estimated at 10,970 acres, making it the largest-acreage fire currently burning in the state. As of Aug. 1, firefighters have established a containment line along the south flank of the fire, and are working to secure the north end aided by heavy equipment and limited air support.

An infrared map of the Niarada Fire, burning 12 miles west of Elmo on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The fire is moving north and east around the 2022 Elmo burn scar. Credit: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire

The Communication Butte Fire, two miles north of Dixon, has burned an estimated 845 acres of grass and timber. Despite steep terrain, the CSKT Division of Fire reported on Aug. 1 that crews are making good progress “putting in containment lines” and the fire is receiving some air support.  

The Niarada Fire, located 12 miles west of Elmo, has burned an estimated 8,431 acres and is advancing north and east. An infrared map from July 31 showed the fire moving around the burn scar from the 2022 Elmo Fire, which ignited almost a year ago to the day. Ground resources including smokejumpers and a 20-person crew are receiving aerial support from four single-engine air tankers, one 8,000+ gallon air tanker, and five 3,000-5,000 gallon air tankers. An evacuation order is currently in place for residents along Browns Meadow Road from Highway 28 to the top of Browns Meadow Pass, and a pre-evacuation warning has been issued for Hubbart Dam Road/NF-544 from the intersection of Crossover Road south to Highway 28. Highway 28 is currently open with speed restrictions in place, and the CSKT Division of Fire is advising the public to be prepared for stops and long wait times.

Just west of the Niarada Fire, the Mill Pocket Fire has grown to approximately 1,546 acres and is moving eastward, according to CSKT fire officials. Dozers and air support are working to slow the fire’s spread. 

As of Aug. 1 on the Flathead National Forest, seven fire starts have been reported in the Spotted Bear Ranger District and nine reported in the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District. The Kah Mountain, Bruce, Sullivan, and Con Kelly fires have combined to form the Tin Soldier Complex, which has burned an estimated 825 acres as of 2 p.m. Aug. 1. and a Type 3 Management Team is expected to take control soon, according to Flathead National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kira Powell. A Type 3 Management Team has also been ordered for the Ridge Fire, which is currently estimated at 50 acres on Montana’s fire dashboard. The remaining fire starts in both districts are relatively small, with one fire successfully controlled and two contained in the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District, but Powell says the small fires are likely to grow due to high temperatures and low humidity. 

Brian Conlan, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, said recent dry thunderstorms in the Mission Valley are the result of unstable air and dry conditions. A low-pressure system moving down from British Columbia also led to increased wind over the past 5-6 days. Warm, dry, and unstable weather conducive to fire growth is expected to continue for several days in northwest Montana. Conlan says wind should start to abate this week. 

In response to increased fire activity, stage 2 fire restrictions were put in place Aug. 1 on the Flathead Indian Reservation and in Lake County. Those restrictions prohibit the use of internal combustion engines during specified hours and the operation of motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails. In addition, the CSKT Division of Fire has raised the designated fire danger on the Flathead Reservation to “extreme.” Flathead County officials declared a state of emergency on Aug. 1 and also raised the county’s fire danger rating to “extreme.” 

Conlan says weather should be trending cooler and wetter in southwest Montana by Wednesday, Aug. 2, and that moisture could move into northwest Montana by Friday, Aug. 4, potentially accompanied by thunderstorms and lightning.


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.