Specially trained firefighters, equipped with high-tech gear designed to prevent the inhalation of toxic asbestos fibers, continued battling forest fires into the weekend near Libby, Montana.
The blaze remains at least a mile from the now-closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, but firefighters continued working with their full-faced respirators in the asbestos-laced forest.
Libby is home to the longest-running, man-made environmental disaster in American history, stemming from more than 70 years (1919-1990) of mining vermiculite tainted by toxic asbestos.
Hundreds of miners and nearby residents have died from asbestos-related diseases, and thousands more have been sickened.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup project, and its Libby Superfund site, is just now ending.
Forest fires have been a problem throughout Northwestern Montana for more than two weeks — with several outbreaks throughout the region — but the most alarming was the Kootenai National Forest area near Libby in Lincoln County.
Special care was needed in the nearly 100 acres that were burning near the mine.
Eight helicopters and nine airplanes were used to drop hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to keep down the dust and stamp out the hot spots to help prevent any threat to nearby communities.
Although the asbestos concentration levels are considerable lower in the forest that is burning than at the mine, all precautions are being taken.
Respirators worn by the special-force firefighters allow only 60 to 70 percent of the normal airflow, which has slowed the pace of anyone wearing one.
Firefighters there must undergo a decontamination process at the end of each day, including a two-part shower, where an asbestos expert guides them through the process.
Bodies, shoes, facemasks, clothes, hand tools, cellphones, and even wallets must be part of the decontamination process or be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Bigger equipment has remained in the dirty zone, where everything will be cleaned thoroughly once the fire is totally contained.
Although the Libby-area firefighting protocols have been in place for more than three years, this is the first time they have been fully tested.
“We weren’t quite prepared for something of this size,” Jeremy Nelson, fire management officer for the mine site, told Montana Public Radio. “We have a heavy reliance on air resources: Helicopters and airplanes. That’s typically our first response.”
EPA spokesperson Christina Progress told local media that there was only modest concern about asbestos-contaminated smoke being a threat to any nearby communities.
“What we’ve seen [from lab studies] is that greater than 95 percent of the asbestos remains in the ash. Very little actually gets liberated into the smoke, which is good news for downwind communities,” she said. “I think the Forest Service has done an incredible job managing the fire and the smoke.”
Travelers along state Highway 37 near Libby were reminded to use caution, but most roads remained clear.
Much of Northwest Montana went into the weekend under a “very high,” fire danger alert.
Officials have said firefighting efforts took longer than normal because of the special equipment and protocol needed.