Skyland Fire Closes U.S. 2

By Beacon Staff

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Wind helped push a fire near Glacier National Park outside firefighters’ control lines Saturday, forcing the evacuation of a lodge and closing a stretch of U.S. 2, officials said.

When guests of the Summit Station Lodge left Saturday morning to go golfing, hiking, rafting and fishing, the Skyland fire was about 8 miles away, said the owner, Jorge Simental. Within three hours, it was a mile away.

“The fire was active all morning. We tried to hang onto it with retardant,” said Dale Warriner, fire information officer. “Around 2:30 this afternoon we pulled everybody off.

“There’s nothing you can do now. We are hitting a couple hot spots on the south side with some helicopters, trying to keep it from moving to the south,” Warriner said.

Thirty-five guests and nearly all 18 employees were being asked to leave Saturday evening, as the fire closed with a half mile of the lodge, Simental said. The manager and chief maintenance worker were going to stay “until they have to leave,” he said.

Lodge employees were trying to contact guests and gather their belongings to move them to different lodges in East Glacier and St. Mary, he said.

Fire crews were protecting the lodge and “tearing down some trees that are kind of dangerous, that are very close to cabins,” Simental said.

A 24-mile stretch of U.S. 2, which connects Midvale Creek Bridge to Middle Fork Campground, was closed.

The Skyland fire had been listed at 420 acres earlier in the day. Warriner said 1,000 acres was a low estimate after the fire blew up.

Hot, dry, windy weather hampered crews working on other blazes in the state.

North of Helena, temperatures in the high 90s, gusty winds and low humidity led to more burning on the Meriwether fire in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness.

The fire was listed at 7,500 acres, with much of the new burning happening in dense fuel in the Upper Meriwether Gulch area, said Maggie Craig, fire information officer. Large columns of smoke were visible from Interstate 15 and the Helena area.

“It’s really kicked up again,” Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said.

Crews completed securing the fire line on the south end of the fire, in the vicinity of the American Bar subdivision and the fire was 15 percent contained, officials said.

The Ahorn fire west of Augusta grew by 500 acres to 15,700 acres Saturday, “which is actually fairly remarkable given the very extreme dryness and head we had on the fire,” said Jean Withnell, fire information officer.

Helicopters dropped 70,000 gallons of water on the fire, concentrating on the east side, Withnell said.

“The primary activity on the fire pushed it out to the west and a little bit further into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, so that’s moving it away from communities,” she said.

“There was a fire shelter deployment on the south side of the fire,” Withnell said. It was a precautionary measure, as was a crew backing off to a safe zone, also on the south side of the fire. No one was injured.

“The concern is that the meteorologist is saying that tomorrow is going to be almost a carbon copy of today _ very hot, very dry. We’re going to have some winds,” Withnell said.

It has cost $3.8 million to fight the fire so far, she said.

Near Polson, the Garceau fire had grown to 3,050 acres and was 50 percent contained. No houses are threatened, but 25 are still considered at risk and firefighters have structure protection in place, said Jill Cobb, fire information officer.

“We had increased fire behavior, but we still made progress,” she said.

And near Missoula, a fire broke out near Bonner Saturday afternoon, leading officials to close Interstate 90 between East Missoula and Bonner so helicopters could drop water on the blaze. It was estimated at 75 acres, officials said.

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