Fire Crews Work to Protect Polson Homes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Fire crews in northwest Montana worked to keep a fast-moving wildfire from destroying homes Wednesday, as officials in the south announced a new round of fire restrictions.

The 3,000-acre Garceau fire, likely sparked by lightning Tuesday morning, forced the evacuation of two homes in the Irvine Flats area southwest of Polson, said Rich Janssen, fire information officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Residents of another 20 homes were on standby to leave, he said.

Helicopters and air tankers joined 120 firefighters at the fire scene Wednesday, with 350 more personnel ordered and a highly trained “type 2” management team expected to take over Thursday, Janssen said.

“We’re working hard on (creating) some dozer line, and the tribal crews today, along with firefighters from the Polson and Ronan departments, plan to do some burnouts and get some line in to make things safer,” he said.

Another new fire two miles south of Glacier National Park doubled in size to 420 acres Tuesday night, said Denise Germann, public information officer for the Flathead National Forest. No structures were threatened by the blaze west of Marias Pass, but several roads and trails in the area were closed.

In southern Montana, state and federal officials announced more fire restrictions in the wake of continued hot, dry weather.

Open burning was banned in the Gallatin National Forest and on BLM lands in Park and Gallatin counties, one day after a similar order was announced in the neighboring Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The Stage 2 rules restrict smoking to vehicles and clear areas and limit the use of chain saws, other engines and welding to between 1 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks adopted the restrictions on all the land it manages in Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties. FWP land in Beaverhead and Madison counties will ban open burning starting Friday.

On the Hi-Line, Malta area ranchers helped local, state and federal fire crews corral a 5,600-acre fire sparked by lightning that destroyed one outbuilding. The Black Coulee fire was contained as of Wednesday afternoon, and crews were mopping up and prepping for new blazes, said Gary Kirpach, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Lewistown office.

“Twenty-four hours ago it was getting pretty wild out there,” he said. “The fire kept changing directions on them.”

In west-central Montana, crews continued using explosives to create fire line on the Ahorn fire west of Augusta. The blaze _ burning in steep, heavy timber _ grew by more than 6,000 acres to a total of 14,900 acres by Wednesday and was expected to keep expanding in the coming days, fire information officer Bob Bayer said.

Cooler weather and higher humidity levels were expected Wednesday, and the fire had shown no significant growth overnight, he said.

Protective wrapping was placed around the Pretty Prairie cabin on the northeastern side of the fire, the Indian Point cabins on the northwest corner of the fire and two pack bridges in the area.

Two helicopters and 10 engines remained ready for structure protection in the Gibson Reservoir and Benchmark areas.

To the southeast, the Meriwether fire was still at 2,000-plus acres Wednesday morning. The lightning-caused blaze led to the closure of the 28,000-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the east side of the Missouri River, including the Coulter Campground.

The popular Gates of the Mountain boat tours were still operating, and campgrounds along Holter Lake managed by the Bureau of Land Management remained open, fire information officer Amy Teegarden said.

Officials were monitoring the blaze as a wilderness fire, meaning it will be allowed to burn until it threatens structures or people, she said.

“Our first objective is firefighter safety and the location of this fire is very unsafe for firefighters,” Teegarden said. “It’s in steep, rugged terrain, there are no safety zones and there’s limited access. It’s a ‘watch out’ situation.”

In Yellowstone National Park, firefighters battling the 1,200-acre Owl fire awoke to cloudy skies and cool temperatures.

The lightning-caused blaze was discovered Friday in the park’s northwest corner and grew from 300 acres in a matter of hours Monday and Tuesday, crossing Specimen Creek and continuing to spread to the north.

Firefighters resumed helicopter bucket drops Tuesday, but rain that fell in and around the park Tuesday night did not reach the fire area, park officials said Wednesday.

A “type 2” management team took control of the blaze Wednesday morning, allowing Yellowstone staff to focus on new fires in the park. That included the 540-acre Beaver Dam fire burning in the backcountry near the southeast arm of Yellowstone Lake.