More Homes Evacuated; Testicle Festival Still a Go

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – More than 100 homes and other buildings were threatened Monday by a trio of fast-moving wildfires southeast of Missoula, but organizers of the area’s famed Testicle Festival said the five-day bacchanalia was still a go.

The 25th annual bash was slated to start Wednesday at the Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton along Interstate 90. It typically draws thousands of people from around the world eager to consume deep-fried bull testicles, also known as “Rocky Mountain oysters.”

While smoke was rising from a mountain across the highway Monday afternoon, co-owner Rodney Lincoln said he had been told the fires were moving away from the lodge and would not impact the festival.

“There’s some smoke, but in terms of flames, compared to last night it’s pretty mellow in my estimation,” Lincoln said. “A little smoke isn’t going to hurt us. It’s not going to deter people from coming.”

Two of the area fires were detected over the weekend and one of them, a 1,000-acre blaze east of Clinton, was believed to have been human-caused.

Residents of about 40 homes were asked to leave that area Sunday night, while campers and residents of another 40 homes west of Philipsburg were asked to evacuate in advance of a 1,000-acre fire there, dubbed the Wyman 2 fire.

About 40 outbuildings also were threatened by that blaze, and crews were placing protective fire wrapping around the structures Monday, said Nick Spang, fire information officer. Erratic winds were expected as a cold front moved through the area.

“We’re not letting anyone up there unless they’re going up to there to collect belongings,” he said.

In Granite County, authorities were prepared to evacuate residents of up to 100 homes threatened by a 300-plus-acre wildfire southeast of Missoula. The Sawmill fire was sparked by lightning July 15, but had flared up in recent days, Spang said.

North of Helena, a wildfire in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness ballooned by nearly 5,000 acres to 11,316 acres, 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, the Ahorn blaze west of Augusta, grew to 30,000 acres and was moving 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 could reach the Benchmark area Monday night, fire managers said.

South of Glacier National Park, crews were pulled off the 5,000-acre Skyland fire Monday morning after the blaze jumped control lines, officials said. It continued to burn north and east into heavier timber near the Continental Divide. A 24-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2 between Essex and East Glacier had been closed again overnight, but reopened 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 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.”

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.