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Heat and smoke choke northern Rockies as fire danger spikes

UPDATED: Mon., July 19, 2021

Smoke obscures the air and dims the sun over a hillside burned by a recent wildfire, in Missoula, Mont., on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Extreme heat descended on parts of the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains on Monday, July 19 as authorities struggled to contain dozens of wildfires burning in a region parched by prolonged drought and blanketed with dangerous smoke.  (Matthew Brown)
Smoke obscures the air and dims the sun over a hillside burned by a recent wildfire, in Missoula, Mont., on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Extreme heat descended on parts of the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains on Monday, July 19 as authorities struggled to contain dozens of wildfires burning in a region parched by prolonged drought and blanketed with dangerous smoke. (Matthew Brown)
Associated Press

BILLINGS — Extreme heat broke decades-old records as it descended Monday on parts of the northern Rocky Mountains, elevating the dangers posed by dozens of wildfires burning across a region parched by drought and blanketed with dangerous smoke.

Along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, the small city of Columbus reached a scorching 111 degrees. The temperature in Billings, Montana’s largest city, hit 106, topping a record set 61 years ago.

Authorities braced for new fires to ignite and existing ones to grow as the National Weather Service said the heat would linger through Thursday.

Such extreme conditions can result from a combination of unusual, short-term natural weather patterns, heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change. Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms. Climate change has made the U.S. West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years, but it remains difficult to determine how much global warming is to blame, if at all, for any individual weather event.

Warnings for high wildfire risk were issued across almost all of Montana and Idaho and portions of northeastern and western Wyoming. More than two dozen new fires broke out across the three states Sunday, further straining firefighting resources that are stretched thin by a large number of early summer fires.

Thunderstorms expected to roll through Monday night would bring winds that could fan wildfires and lightning that could spark new ones, the weather service said.

Smoke poured into the sky over the region from local blazes and fires elsewhere in the West, causing unhealthy air quality Monday around numerous Montana cities — including Missoula, Anaconda, Butte, Great Falls, Cut Bank and Browning — and around McCall, Idaho, according to state and federal pollution monitoring data.

When the air quality is unhealthy, people should remain indoors as much as possible and limit themselves to 30 minutes of light outdoor activity.

Air quality in west-central Montana, including Helena and Lewistown, was unhealthy for sensitive groups, which includes children, pregnant women, older adults and people with chronic disease, such as asthma or cardiovascular disease.

Meanwhile, a Montana firefighter was hospitalized in serious condition at the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City for burns he suffered when strong winds shifted suddenly on a fire in south-central Montana.

Dan Steffensen was injured fighting a fire in the Harris Hill area near Joliet, which has torched 4 square miles. Steffensen was on a two-person engine crew when the winds shifted and he was overrun by the fast-moving fire, Red Lodge Fire Rescue said.

Following a different fire in which a helicopter had to make a hard landing last month, a Montana Highway Patrol trooper who helped rescue the crew received on Monday the Award of Valor, the patrol’s highest award.

Trooper Amanda Villa was setting up a roadblock for a fire on June 15 when she saw a Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter go down near U.S. Highway 12 east of Townsend because of strong winds. Villa and a Broadwater County sheriff’s deputy responded to help.

A passenger who was able to get out of the helicopter told Villa that four more people were inside. She and the deputy helped the remaining passengers to safety as the helicopter and nearby grass burned.

“What began as routine roadblock turned into a rescue mission in the blink of an eye,” Patrol Col. Steve Lavin said. “Thanks to the quick thinking and preparedness of Trooper Villa and the deputy, everyone went home safely. I can’t understate my appreciation for their heroic actions.”

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