Largest Blazes Still Burning in Bob Marshall

By Beacon Staff

AUGUSTA, Mont. (AP) – A wildfire burning on the edge of Lewis and Clark National Forest prompted an evacuation order for a cluster of summer homes, as firefighters across the state battled several fires Monday amid hot and dry weather conditions.

Two of the largest blazes were burning in the forest’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, west of Great Falls and north of Helena.

One fire had burned 8,792 acres, or nearly 14 square miles. Over the weekend, it moved about three miles beyond the wilderness area’s eastern boundary, fire information officer Kristin Garrison said.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle issued the evacuation order Sunday affecting about 40 seasonal homes at Benchmark, an area within the Lewis and Clark forest. Most were unoccupied, the sheriff said.

The second fire burned about 6,214 acres, or 9.7 square miles, in the wilderness area.

To the southeast, authorities restricted traffic on Interstate 15 in the Craig area after smoke reduced visibility. Only one lane was open in each direction, the Montana Highway Patrol said.

About 30 miles north of Helena, authorities lifted an evacuation order affecting 70 homes in the Wolf Creek area. The fire had burned about 570 acres and was 60 percent contained Monday, said fire information officer Mike Cole.

“It’s looking in pretty good shape,” Cole said.

Although residents were allowed to return, authorities continued to restrict access to the public for safety reasons, the sheriff said.

“There’s a one-way in, one-way out road,” Liedle said. “We didn’t feel it was appropriate for the public to congest that road while the firefighters were still going up and down.”

Also Monday, officials closed about 150,000 acres of the 3.3 million acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in the West Pioneer Mountains near the Pettengill fire. The blaze had burned about 3,700 acres, or about 5.8 square miles, in the Stone Lakes area northeast of Wisdom; it was 27 percent contained Monday.

The closed area was north of Lacy and McVey creeks and west of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, to the forest boundary east and south of Highway 43.

Elsewhere, the Meriwether fire in the Helena National Forest grew to 1,200 acres, prompting forest officials to close all 28,500 acres of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

The blaze came to life one draw down from Mann Gulch, where 13 smokejumpers died in 1949 after being overrun by flames, the Independent Record newspaper reported on its Web site.

“It’s too dangerous to get firefighters up there,” said Amy Teegarden, spokeswoman for the Helena National Forest. “It has really grown today. It’s moving to the south and southwest. That’s forcing us to close a larger area.”

The fire was sparked by lightning last week.

Another fire burning in rugged, undeveloped land about 15 miles north of the Wolf Creek blaze grew to 1,100 acres Sunday.

Wildfires have put the area through “some pretty rough years,” Liedle said. “This one looks to be another.”

In Yellowstone National Park, a backcountry fire just north of the Montana-Wyoming border was estimated at 303 acres Monday. The fire led to the closure of some trails and campsites, but Yellowstone and its services remained open.

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