For the first time in 2023, Western Montana is under "red flag" warnings, as forecasters predict strong winds and hot temperatures that mean a heightened threat of wildfire starts.

And the timing couldn't be worse as firefighters are already battling two significant lightning-caused fires that have already burned thousands of acres and forced some evacuation warnings.

The National Weather Service says the critical fire weather is expected to last from Monday afternoon through Monday evening until midnight, across the northern sections of Western Montana.

The "red flag" warnings are based on a combination of three factors, hot temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds, that greatly accelerate fire danger, and especially the growth of wildfires.

This time around, the warnings extend from Lolo Pass and the Northern Sapphire Mountains, northeast through the Garnet Mountains, the Blackfoot Valley to the Rocky Mountain Front, through the Mission Valley, and into the eastern Flathead, including Glacier National Park.

NWS says "new and existing wildfires will be capable of spreading quickly."

Scattered thunderstorms are also in the forecast, and that could produce even stronger wind gusts in the vicinity of those storms.

The weather is of particular concern to firefighters on the Colt and Bowles Creek fires.

A scooper plane drops water on the Colt Fire; DNRC photo
A scooper plane drops water on the Colt Fire; DNRC photo
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The Colt Fire started in a lightning storm last week had burned nearly 1600 acres by Sunday and was continuing to spread. It's burning in dense, heavy timber 15 miles northwest of Seely Lake, and directly west of Rainy Lake. The fire has already forced the Missoula County Sheriff's Office to order evacuations in areas along Highway 83.

The Bowles Creek Fire, which is burning in rugged, steep terrain above the Skalkaho, isn't directly impacted by the "red flag" warnings. But there is the potential for winds and thunderstorms. It had burned 1300 acres by Sunday. It's burning adjacent to the Hog Trough fire burn, which was a stubborn fire that burned for weeks last summer.

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