It was another active fire week in western Montana. Fires forced evacuations in Sanders County, closed part of Highway 2, and put the town of Essex on alert. Nowhere in western Montana escaped the choking smoke produced by dozens of fires burning in the state and in neighboring Idaho and Washington.
Thompson Divide Complex
About a hundred people remain poised to evacuate as swirling winds continue fueling the Sheep Fire near Essex, just south of Glacier National Park.
Last night that 230 acre fire crept northeast and is now less than a mile from the BNSF railway and U.S. Highway 2.
Fire information Officer Sonja Hartmann says the Highway 2 traffic corridor is under restricted access.
"To get through from West Glacier to East Glacier you either have to be a resident or a cabin owner or a guest of one of the facilities in that section."
Essex and portions of the corridor around the town remain in the ‘Set’ Stage of the Ready, Set, Go evacuation strategy.
The fire is still burning a couple miles away from Essex, but residents are advised to load important belongings into their cars or trucks for possible evacuation.
Over 200 buildings are at risk if the Sheep Fire grows into the Essex community.
A Red Flag Warning is in effect for active fire behavior this evening as southwest winds up to 30-40 mph shift northwest.
In Sanders County, evacuations have been underway over the past two days due to three fires burning in the Bull River drainage. The Napoleon fire has forced about 70 people to evacuate their homes.
Shawna Chenoweth is Lieutenant with the Sanders County Sheriff's department:
"At this point we've evacuated on Highway 56 from milepost 2.7 to milepost 14. We've evacuated all of the East Fork of Bull River. There is a pre-evacuation on Highway 56 from milepost 1 to 2.7, and milepost 14 to 16. And then there's pre-evacuation on Old Bull River Road, and pre-evacuation on Highway 200 from the intersection of Highway 56 and 200 to milepost 8 on Highway 200."
A Red Cross emergency shelter has been set up in Noxon for evacuees. Call 406-283-1577 for more information.
While the Highways remain open at this time, the Sheriff's Department is encouraging people to avoid the areas of the fire unless absolutely necessary.
The Napoleon Fire was last reported as 2,100 acres in size on Wednesday. High winds are expected in the area tonight.
Bear Creek Complex
The Bear Creek Fire on the Spotted Bear Ranger District grew from 465 acres to over 11,000 acres and crossed the South Fork of the Flathead River Thursday. Strong winds pushed the fire through several trailheads. No structures were lost, but some vehicles and trailers were consumed. Fire managers are still assessing the size and damages resulting from the fire. Several closures are in effect due to these fires, including Meadow Creek Road #2826 from the entrance with Wilderness Lodge south to Meadow Creek Trailhead; Gorge Creek Road #549 south from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Gorge Creek Trailhead; Eastside South Fork of the Flathead River Trail #80 from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Black Bear Creek; and the Meadow Creek Airstrip.
Northeast Kootenai Complex
In Lincoln County, a new closure is in effect today in the area of the 40 acre Barnaby fire. That's just one of the fires that make up the Northeast Kootenai complex, along with the Marston, Sunday, and Weigel Fires.
The Marston fire is the biggest in the complex at 3,200 acres in size. It's burning near Eureka on the Fortine Ranger District. The Weigle fire is being called 100 percent contained. Fireline has been completed around most of the 60 acre Sunday Fire.
Today, firefighters plan to secure line on the eastern perimeter of the Marston fire, and build dozer line on the southeast edge to prevent the fire from spreading into the Stillwater State forest.
National Guard helicopters will drop water on the Barnaby Fire as needed.
A structure group is assessing the danger to properties in the Laughing Water Creek and Graves Creek areas. No evacuations are currently in effect.
Over 300 personnel are working the Kootenai Complex, including 16 engines, five helicopters and and six bulldozers.
Sucker Creek Fire
On the 2,700 acre Sucker Creek Fire burning six miles northeast of Lincoln, firefighters are bracing for increased fire activity as Red Flag conditions threaten winds up to 40 mph in the area.
Mandatory evacuations are still in effect on the west side of Landers Fork and the east side of Landers Fork at Elk Trail Park. Parts of Sucker Creek Road, North Fork Keep Cool Road, Copper Creek Road remain closed. Trails in the Snowbank Trail area are also off limits due to the fire.
Thursday, firefighters completed burnout operations around the perimeter of the fire, and began rehabilitation efforts along a section of Copper Creek road where fire breaks were created. They're calling the fire 25 percent contained.
One of Montana’s top wildfire officials says the state is doing OK in terms of having the resources it needs to fight fires.
John Tubbs is the director of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
"We’re much better off right now, today, than we were at the beginning of the week. In part that’s because we’ve buttoned up the Eustis fire out here by Toston, the Cabin fire down by Dillon’s gotten buttoned up, it’s in patrol. So a lot of the fires outside of the northwest are in patrol status, thereby relieving crews and initial attack units to go back to their bases and be prepared for the next event."
Tubbs says some of the fires on the Flathead National Forest that weren’t being fought earlier this week have now had federal firefighting teams assigned to them. But he says, a lot could change in Montana in the next 24 hours depending on how a cold front passing through the area affects fires in the area.