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Flashy storms pack a charge, drop little moisture

| July 20, 2007 12:00 AM

By KYLE McCLELLAN The Western News

A line of multiple single cell thunderstorms rolled northward from the Montana and Idaho border Tuesday night, dropping more than 500 lightning strikes on parched forests around Libby and igniting numerous small forest fires, according to the national weather Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

"The concentration of lighting was pretty impressive," said Missioula National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Stegemiller. He estimated that a quarter of the strikes occurred in a 50 square-mile block in Lincoln County.

Tuesday night's storm, which moved northward at about 16 mph, began forming just after 5 p.m. and left the area around 10 p.m.

It left a windblown yet relatively dry county in its wake.

Stegemiller said a spotter reported wind gusts of up to 30 or 40 mph around U.S. Highway 37 just north of Libby The highest level of precipitation, recorded near Fisher River, reached .38 of an inch.

Forest officials are taking off in fixed-wing planes from the Libby helibase and conducting aerial observations of the areas hardest hit by the lightning, said Frank Waterman, Kootenai Interagency Dispatch Center manager.

"We're pretty well-scattered," Waterman said.

Fires have been reported in Lolo, Flathead and Kootenai national forests.

Lolo has already reported 10 fires and is set to operate under Stage II fire restrictions by midnight Sunday.

The fire season this year has emerged quickly and furiously.

"We're ahead of schedule by two or three weeks as far as dryness goes," Waterman said.

According to the Kootenai National Forest Office, Stage I fire restrictions will go into effect in the Kootenai Forest by Sunday night.

Under the restrictions, campfires can be burned only in metal or concrete rings at a developed camp site and smoking is not allowed unless it takes place inside a vehicle or at a developed recreation site.

Tuesday night, the storm lost intensity as it traveled north, according to Stegemiller.

"That's why you didn't receive as much hail, rain and wind," he said. "It was worse to the south."

Eighteen hours later, that same lightning storm likely caused a small fire across from Bear Creek Road according to Bill Watt, Libby's assistant fire chief who was at the scene directing the crews.

Watt said the heat from a lightning strike can be stored in trees' root systems and ignite the duff on the forest floor on a hot, sunny day like Wednesday afternoon.

Firefighters from Libby, Cabinet View, the forest service and the county's rural fire district responded to the one-acre fire burning about 300 yards from Highway 2 South.

The crews flanked the flames and then worked their way to the middle, controlling most of the fire within an hour and-a-half.

So far this summer, three large forest fires have burned more than 16,000 acres in Montana. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 786 fires were reported nationwide during the past two days.