Fire burning near northwestern Montana vermiculite mine

By – Associated Press – Friday, July 20, 2018

LIBBY, Mont. (AP) – Specially trained firefighters were wearing respirators Friday as they fought an apparently human-caused blaze in northwestern Montana near where asbestos-tainted vermiculite was mined for decades.

The forest fire was first discovered Thursday afternoon west of Libby, near the now-closed Mine. It had burned about 50 acres (20 hectares) by Friday morning.

The fire burned to within about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of the mine and crews were working to keep it from advancing, said Kootenai National Forest spokeswoman Cami Winslow.

“We’re giving it everything we have,” said Libby District Ranger Nate Gassman.

Asbestos still lingers in the trees and soil around the mine. Breathing the fibers can lead to mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Fire management officer Dan Rose says to protect firefighters, the U.S. Forest Service requires firefighters to use respirators if they are going to do ground-disturbing work near the mine site.

The fire was not threatening any residences but if it expanded to the north it could threaten the Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines from Libby Dam, Gassman said.

Meanwhile, on the Bitterroot National Forest in southwestern Montana, crews were battling a lightning-caused blaze on the Montana-Idaho border.

Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay said Friday that fire managers have been fortunate enough to get all the crews and aerial support they need because they are not competing for resources.

The fire was believed to have started with a lightning strike Tuesday night about 35 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of Darby and grew to 1.7 square miles (4.3 square kilometers) on Wednesday.

McKay says “we hit it with a ton of aerial stuff” on Wednesday and it remained the same size on Friday. About 175 people are assigned to the fire, including seven 20-member teams.

The fire is not threatening any residences. The closest private residence is about 9 miles (23 kilometers) away from the fire.

Hot, dry weather is forecast in Montana for at least the next week.

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