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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Late Night Evacuation For Hundreds Near Lolo Peak Fire

Evacuees check in with Missoula County Sheriff's Department Staff in Lolo Wednesday night
Eric Whitney
Evacuees check in with Missoula County Sheriff's Department Staff in Lolo Wednesday night

Update: 9:50: This from the Missoula County Sheriff's Office: "Due to the recent fire activity, evacuation passes need to be postponed until further notice.

This means residents who are evacuated near the Lolo Peak Fire will NOT be able to return to their homes in the mornings as we had hoped. Thank you for being patient and helping us during this time. We will keep you apprised of any changes." 

About 400 homes south and west of the town of Lolo were evacuated late last night, most with no warning, due to the Lolo Peak Fire. These are new evacuations in both the Highway 12 and Highway 93 corridors.

The order came from the Missoula County Sheriff's office about 10:30 p.m. Soon after, Patrol Captain William Burt was setting up an incident management trailer in a weigh station parking lot at the intersection of Highways 93 and 12 in Lolo.

"There's about 700 homes involved altogether," Burt said, "about 400 of them are going to be under order, and another 300 under warning.

"At the moment we have a team of about a dozen guys involved, Missoula County deputies and Ravalli County deputies that are going door to door, providing literature, whether you're under warning or order," Burt said. "They're providing literature and trying to make face to face contact with each and every one of those 700 homes."

I asked him his biggest challenge at the moment.

"I think the biggest thing is the time of day," he said. "People leaving their homes orderly, checking in here at the trailer, letting us know that they're out so we can let the fire crews know which houses are empty. As you can see, the fire is coming over the top of Mormon peak, and it's on it's way down into here."

About five miles southwest of and above where the incident management trailer was parked there was a bright red glow on a ridgeline, every now and then erupting brightly as trees torched and sent up long fingers of flames.

Already, people were already streaming in across the parking lot to come look at maps, get information and check in with Sheriff's Department staff.

Gary Holmes was among those who got a pre-recorded phone call from the county.

"We got evacuated about a half hour ago," Holmes said.

I asked him what it's like to get an evacuation phone call.

"Well, it's a little disconcerting for sure," Holmes said. "They said, 'evacuate now.' It was pretty immediate and pretty emphatic that you should get out right now.

"We were in pre-evacuation mode," he said. "We've got friends we're going to go stay with, so we're lucky there. And we were prepared, we've moved a bunch of stuff out, an packed things up, as much as we could."

The parking lot stayed steadily busy. There were trucks pulli ng campers and horse trailers, some people caught cat naps in their cars, families huddled together, people talked on cell phones and took pictures and videos of the flames pulsing red on the ridge above. One older man told an information staffer he needed a ride to his pickup up the highway, a young woman overheard him and offered to to drive him, they shuffled off together.

At about 12:30, Sheriff's department staff said roughly 90 households had checked in with them, and I got an update from Patrol Captain William Burt.

"The evacuations are going pretty well and pretty orderly," he said. "Lt. Vick and I have been driving around and seeing what the teams have going. We're not getting much resistance from folks, people are voluntarily leaving, and they're doing it in a very orderly fashion, which is going to make it much easier for the fire crews. Especially when fire vehicles start coming into those areas where the fire is coming down to," he said.

"I believe the vehicles will probably be going in about 6 tomorrow morning," Burt said, meaning Thursday morning.

"We haven't had any crashes," Burt said, "Montana Highway Patrol is working with us on the Highway 12 corridor, and 93, no traffic problems to speak of."

"We realize a lot of these areas weren't under warning prior to this, they went straight to (and evacuation) order, so a lot of these folks weren't prepared," Burt said.

He said the biggest challenge for the Sheriff's office was "such a mass evacuation. I think the numbers I heard where somewhere around 500 and some homes under (evacuation) order, and another 600-something under warning.  So, 1,100 households are affected," Burt said.

"Surprisingly, we're not really having any problems with finding places for people to go," Burt said."They're either staying with relatives or friends. The shelters are being used, I don't know what those numbers are right now. But as far as our aspect of this, what the Sheriff's Office does, things are flowing pretty well."

An hour later about 16 sheriff's deputies and law enforcement officers from other  agencies had a quick meeting over the trunk of a patrol car, under bright lights on a pole being run off of a generator. They dispersed, and traffic at the check in station began to diminish.

But the lights stayed on. The two women staffing the check-in table remained there in jackets against the chill, and the angry red glow on the hill side faded to black as winds that had been persistently blowing since early afternoon finally calmed, but didn't fully disappear.

Today's weather forecast is the same as yesterday's – which means another challenging day for firefighters and other public safety officials in Missoula and Ravalli counties.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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