HELENA (AP) – A highway south of Glacier National Park was reopened Sunday, just a half-mile from a wind-whipped wildfire that more than quadrupled in size, but a nearby lodge threatened by the flames remained evacuated.
Near-record heat and low humidity levels also fueled blazes to the south and west in Montana, with similar conditions forecast for Monday.
The Skyland fire ballooned from an estimated 1,000 acres to about 5,000 acres in 24 hours, and was making runs to the northeast in heavy timber, said Dale Warriner, fire information officer.
It was just two percent contained, he said.
Authorities escorted traffic on U.S. 2 through the area along the southern edge of the park in northwest Montana. Fire managers warned it could be closed again if the blaze flared up like it did Saturday, when wind kicked it across control lines and prompted authorities to shut down a 24-mile stretch of the highway.
“We’re looking for opportunities on the flanks of the fire to find fire breaks,” Warriner said. “To put yourself out in front of a fire in these kind of fuels is just futile and foolish, but we still have to put line around the fire somehow so we’re looking for ways to do this.”
Guests and 18 employees at Summit Station Lodge along U.S. 2 remained evacuated as flames advanced to within a mile of the facility. Crews were protecting the lodge and tearing down trees that were close to cabins.
No other structures were threatened, but officials in Pondera County asked residents of Heart Butte to be prepared to evacuate if necessary. The community of about 700 people is approximately 18 miles southeast of the blaze.
“We’re not going to call for an evacuation until it gets within 10 miles, so we’ve got some time, we just don’t want to have to pull a surprise on everyone in the middle of the night,” said Clete Gregory, the county’s disaster and emergency services director.
He asked residents to stay tuned to area radio stations for the latest fire information.
The blaze remained active overnight and was growing toward the northeast, Warriner said. On Saturday, it ballooned from 420 acres to about 1,000 acres, or about 1.5 square miles, he said.
Containment of a fire north of Helena, which had charred nearly 10 square miles, fell from 15 percent to 10 percent Sunday in “extremely significant” fire conditions, officials said. A huge plume of smoke was visible from Helena and Interstate 15.
Growth of the Meriwether fire was expected, but fire information officer Bonney McNabb said updated acreage figures would not be available until Sunday night.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for 40 homes in the American Bar subdivision along the Missouri River, and the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness and surrounding recreation sites remained closed. The Gates of the Mountains boat tours were operating on a limited route.
The Ahorn fire west of Augusta grew by 1,000 acres to 16,870 acres, crossing Ahorn Creek on the west side. More than 340 personnel were on scene, and the blaze was 13 percent contained, fire officials said.
Helicopters dropped 70,000 gallons of water on the fire Saturday, concentrating on the east side. The blaze has cost $3.8 million to fight so far, officials said.
Near Polson, the Garceau fire remained at 3,050 acres and was 50 percent contained. No homes were threatened, but 25 were still considered at risk and firefighters have structure protection in place, said Jill Cobb, fire information officer.
To the south, Interstate 90 between East Missoula and Bonner was reopened Sunday after parts of it were closed the day before so helicopters could drop water on a pair of fast-moving wildfires.
One of the fires had charred 185 acres near the Rock Creek interchange, while the other was estimated at 5 acres near East Missoula. No structures were threatened by either fire, said Jamie Kirby of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Crews were pulled off a fast-moving blaze west of Whitefish that grew to from 50 acres to 600 acres overnight in extreme conditions, 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.
Red flag warnings, denoting critical fire danger, were posted for 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 in the areas.
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