Highway Fire Continues to Spread, May Cause Asbestos Exposure
The Highway 37 fire in Montana has already spread across 51 acres as crews struggle to reign in the flames. It is spreading across the terrain four miles northwest of Libby. Firefighters from the United States Forest Service and the Libby Volunteer Fire Department along with others are using their equipment to attempt to combat it. Water and fire retardant have been dropped onto the blaze in an attempt to halt its growth.
Fire managers are especially concerned that the fire is burning just over a mile from the former WR Grace vermiculite asbestos mine, and many are wondering if the crews will be able to stop it before it begins to expose cancer-causing toxins. The area has been dubbed Operable Unit 3, or OU3, which is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby Superfund site consisting of 10,000 acres site on which resides the former mine, ground zero for the Libby asbestos contamination.
If the fire did enter OU3, the Lincoln County Health Department would deploy mobile air-quality monitoring stations, so local and state health officials could use information collected from the stations to determine if a shelter-in-place order needs to be issued to the area’s residents. This is the emergency response protocol followed when asbestos contaminates the air. Residents would be ordered to stay inside their homes rather than to evacuate. All doors, windows, and vents are closed to ensure the contaminated air is not leaked inside, and their homes would be made as airtight as possible by shutting off any HVAC systems.
At one time, OU3 included 35,000 acres directly north of Highway 37. However, its parameters dwindled in 2017 after the Environmental Protection Agency conducted tests that found previously contaminated soil was now clear. Despite the smaller area of concern, the Forest Service still designates the spot directly north of Highway 37 as a “modified response zone.” This means firefighters who work there are required to receive special training regarding protection from asbestos exposure and carry with them respiratory gear at all times. The Forest Service is taking measures to ensure employee health and safety as they fight the disaster, and extra measures have been taken to protect workers from asbestos-ridden dust, ash, and debris.
Flathead County Fire Service Area Manager Lincoln Chute said the lack of rain will only increase the fire hazard in the coming weeks and residents should limit their time outdoors. “We can’t do anything about the lack for rain, but we can be a little bit more careful in preventing human-caused fires,” he said. It was confirmed early on that the fire was started by discarded smoking material, such as cigarettes. It began on July 19th and quickly spread.
The Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program is preparing to administer air sampling when it becomes necessary. Canoe Gulch Road, Kennedy Gulch Road, and Alexander Creek Road on the Kootenai National Forest are all currently closed, and more closures are expected as the fire continues to spread. Crews are continuing to reinforce fire lines on flank and initiate contingency lines, as aircraft have been called in to help with the water effort.