The Big Knife Fire, east of Arlee, photographed July 28, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / MTFP

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Precipitation and cooler temperatures slowed the spread of some wildfires in western Montana last week, offering a bit of relief to firefighters who have been working since late July to contain a number of blazes ignited by dry lightning

Precipitation totals Aug. 5-6 varied across the Mission and Jocko valleys, according to a release from the CSKT Division of Fire. Additional rainfall on Wednesday, Aug. 9, wasn’t enough to extinguish fires burning in the region, but did dampen them by wetting small to medium-sized fuels like grass and brush. Both cool fronts dropped much-needed moisture, but northwest Montana is still experiencing severe drought conditions that will continue to dry out fuels.

Three large fires are currently burning on the Flathead Indian Reservation:

  • The Big Knife Fire five miles east of Arlee has burned 4,952 acres and is 7% contained, with pre-evacuation orders in place for residents near the base of the mountains west of the fire.
  • 12 miles west of Elmo, the 20,365-acre Niarada Fire is 79% contained.
  • Also west of Elmo, the Mill Pocket Fire is 2,135 acres and 89% contained.

Areas placed under evacuation status for the Niarada Fire on Friday, Aug. 4 have been downgraded to a pre-evacuation warning. Additionally, the Niarada Fire evacuation notice for Browns Meadow Pass to Highway 28 and the pre-evacuation warning for the Mill Pocket Fire have both been lifted.

Other fires on the Flathead Indian Reservation — the Middle Ridge, Communication Butte, Holmes Creek and Mercer fires — have been largely contained. 

Two large fires are currently burning on the Flathead National Forest:

  • The Ridge Fire southeast of Hungry Horse has grown to 3,132 acres and is 10% contained. The Hungry Horse Reservoir is currently closed due to fire activity. Authorities have also closed several roads and issued a pre-evacuation notice along a portion of Highway 2.
  • The Tin Soldier Complex, made up of the Bruce, Kah Mountain, and Sullivan fires, is estimated at 2,694 acres and is 0% contained. The Forest Service has issued an area closure for the Tin Soldier Complex, which includes two trails outside the closure boundary.

In northwest Montana, the East Fork Fire, burning 1,420 acres south of Trego in the Kootenai National Forest, is 50% contained and a closure order is currently in place for nearby roads. The human-caused Gravel Pit Fire southeast of Libby has burned 304 acres and is 65% contained. An evacuation warning is in place for residents near the fire along Highway 2. 

In the Seeley-Swan Valley, the Colt Fire, which fire officials estimate received 0.07 inches of rain on Wednesday, Aug. 9, has burned 7,202 acres and is now 45% contained. 

On the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge and Bitterroot national forests, the Bowles Creek Fire has burned 3,980 acres since it started by lightning on July 20. The fire is currently 5% contained. 

The National Weather Service is predicting elevated fire weather across Montana during the week of Aug. 14, as temperatures rise into the 90s and lower 100s and winds increase. Hot temperatures paired with low humidity levels will continue to dry out fuels, likely leading to more active fire behavior. The NWS has also issued multiple heat advisories in western Montana, encouraging residents to minimize time in the sun and stay hydrated. 

Stay up-to-date on Montana’s active fires and air quality by visiting MTFP’s 2023 Fire Report


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.