HELENA – A new pair of wildfires prompted evacuations for at least 40 homes in western Montana on Monday, as continued hot, dry weather fueled the growth of other blazes around the state.
The Mile Marker 124 fire, discovered Saturday, had burned about 1,000 acres along Interstate 90 east of Clinton in western Montana and is believed to be human-caused. Residents of about 40 homes were asked to leave the area Sunday night, while campers and residents west of Philipsburg were ordered to leave in advance of a 500-acre fire there, dubbed the Wyman 2 fire.
It was not immediately known how many homes and campers were affected by that order.
North of Helena, a wildfire in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness ballooned by nearly 5,000 acres to 11,316 acres Sunday, and was expected to keep growing Monday in similar “extreme” conditions, said Bonney McNabb, fire information officer.
A huge plume of smoke from the Meriwether fire was visible from Helena and Interstate 15.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for 40 homes in the American Bar subdivision along the Missouri River, and the wilderness area and surrounding recreation sites remained closed. The popular Gates of the Mountains boat tours were operating on a limited route.
“Fire growth is expected on the north and northeast side of the fire until a cold front passes (through), at which time we can expect to see growth to the south and east,” McNabb said.
The state’s largest fire, west of Augusta, grew to 30,000 acres and was advancing toward the Benchmark area, the site of several homes and Forest Service facilities. The blaze, burning since July 11, crossed fire lines in several other areas and may reach the Benchmark area Monday night, fire managers said.
Hot, dry and windy weather helped a wildfire south of Glacier National Park expand to roughly 5,000 acres Sunday. A 24-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2 between Essex and East Glacier was closed again overnight, but authorities expected to reopen the highway Monday with escorts for traffic in the fire area, said Dale Warriner, fire information officer.
A burnout was planned along the two-lane highway Monday to keep the blaze from jumping the road, he said.
Guests and 18 workers at the Summit Station Lodge along the highway remained evacuated as flames burned within a mile of the facility. No other structures were threatened, and preparations for the evacuation of Heart Butte, a town of about 700 people 18 miles away, were suspended after the fire changed course, officials said.
“A cold front moving through this afternoon could change some wind directions favorably,” Warriner said. “It will be cooler tomorrow, which is great news.”
In the Lolo National Forest, a wildfire north of Ovando exploded from 375 acres to 2,700 acres Sunday afternoon and was advancing toward two cabins, information officer Sadie Campbell said.
Crews were scrambling to protect the two structures, and critical fire conditions forecast Monday “promises to further challenge fire fighting resources,” she said.
Crews were pulled off a fast-moving blaze west of Whitefish that grew to from 50 acres to 600 acres Sunday, information officer Teresa Wenum said. No structures were threatened, but the lightning-sparked blaze was spotting up to a quarter mile ahead of the main fire and had made runs up Sheppard Mountain, she said.
Southwest of Polson, the Garceau fire remained 50 percent contained at 3,045 acres. No homes were threatened, but 25 were still considered at risk and firefighters have structure protection in place, said Jill Cobb, fire information officer.
Red flag warnings, denoting critical fire danger, were posted Monday along the Rocky Mountain Front and in parts of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Bitterroot, Helena, Lewis and Clark and Lolo national forests. Gusty winds and low humidity levels were forecast.
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