Smoke Blankets the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

WOLF CREEK (AP) – Campers and residents of another 60 homes southeast of here were evacuated Tuesday after a wildfire in the nearby Gates of the Mountains Wilderness grew to at least 15,000 acres, or about 23 square miles, and continued to spread.

Residents of about 20 homes in the area were asked to leave Monday night. On Tuesday morning, the evacuation of 60 more homes was ordered, and campgrounds on the northern shore of Holter Lake were closed after the fire “blew up” and crept to within a quarter mile of one of the campgrounds, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said.

Montana Skyland Fire

The Skyland Fire burns around traffic moving east over Marias Pass on U.S. Highway 2 on Tuesday, July 31, 2007. Traffic was being escorted one lane at a time leading to delays around Glacier National Park. – Lido Vizzuti/Flathead Beacon

Area homeowner Lyla Amato watched the exodus from her camper, which she and her husband had parked next to a bridge spanning the Missouri River “so we could stay close by and see what was happening.”

Amato and her husband, Joe, were ordered to leave their seasonal lake home Monday night. With smoke hanging in the air, they grabbed important documents, photo albums, a computer, some food and two 5-gallon jugs of water, then drove their camper to a parking lot next to the Wolf Creek bridge. A fire engine and helicopter stood in a nearby meadow.

“It felt a bit silly, like we shouldn’t be (evacuating), but I thought it’s better to put all our stuff back whole than to take it out in pieces,” Amato said.

About 40 homes in a subdivision near the fire’s southeastern edge remained evacuated, as did the Beaver Creek area.

The Meriwether fire was about 30 percent contained Tuesday, but was expected to grow to the north and northeast, said Bonney McNabb, fire information officer. Bulldozers and a highly trained squad known as a Hot Shot crew had been ordered for that area.

Tim Crawford, manager of the popular Gates of the Mountains boat tours, said the blaze has been a hardship.

Smoke from the Brush Creek Fire plooms up behind Jason Rockwood as he tees onto the fourth fairway at the Big Mountain Golf Course in Kalispell on Tuesday, July 31, 2007. – Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

The Missouri River boat tours have continued since lightning started the fire July 21, but business is down at least 50 percent and Crawford estimated he lost up to $18,000 last week alone.

“That doesn’t seem like much to the federal government, but to a small business owner that’s only open a few months of the year it’s a big deal,” he said Tuesday from a deck overlooking the hazy boat marina.

More than 125 Montana National Guard members were called up for security on that fire and others in western Montana threatening more than 100 homes and other buildings southeast of Missoula. One of those fires, a 1,511-acre blaze east of Clinton believed to be human-caused, temporarily closed part of Interstate 90 Monday night and was only 5 percent contained.

Residents of about 40 homes had been urged to leave that area, and campers and residents of 40 homes west of Philipsburg were told to evacuate because of a fire managed with two others in what is called the Sawmill complex.

The complex was estimated at 2,520 acres Tuesday and included a blaze in Granite County southeast of Missoula that threatened as many as 100 homes. That fire sparked by lightning two weeks ago flared in recent days.

Helicopter water drops had slowed the fires, although they still were expected to grow by about 10 percent every day until a “season-ending event occurs,” fire managers said.

Montana’s largest wildfire, west of Augusta, had charred 36,311 acres, down about 10,000 acres from earlier estimates due to better mapping, fire officials said. Lewis and Clark County authorities ordered 27 homes evacuated on the fire’s northeast corner, Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said Tuesday.

A blaze along the southern edge of Glacier National Park remained at about 10,000 acres and was 5 percent contained Tuesday. Evacuation was recommended for several homes in the area, and the Summit Station Lodge had been emptied of its guests and 18 employees. Flames were within a mile of the lodge.

Authorities were escorting U.S. 2 traffic through the fire corridor, and crews continued burnouts along the two-lane highway to keep the blaze from jumping the road.

Smoke from the Brush Creek Fire rises over Whitefish Lake on Tuesday, July 31, 2007. – Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

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