HELENA (AP) – Safety concerns prompted authorities to pull fire crews off a new wildfire burning northeast of Missoula on Saturday, as residents of some 200 homes near the popular getaway spots of Seeley and Placid lakes were told to evacuate.
“This fire is in the hands of God right now,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said after flying over the blaze in a helicopter.
The fire had burned an estimated 5,000 acres, or nearly 8 square miles, as of Saturday afternoon. Winds between 25 and 30 mph were helping to fan the blaze, which began Friday afternoon.
Schweitzer said the fire was volatile and could grow rapidly, jeopardizing crews.
“We can’t risk firefighters’ lives,” Schweitzer said.
The fire was still about 3 miles west of Seeley Lake, he said. The evacuation order did not apply to the town of Seeley Lake, but covered about 200 homes scattered around it and Placid Lake to the south, said Jamie Kirby, a state fire prevention specialist.
There were no reports of homes burning, Kirby said. It was not known how close the fire was to the residences, a mix of year-round and vacation homes.
Schweitzer urged people to leave without delay.
“Open the gates, turn the livestock loose, take your pets, shut off the propane at the tank, shut off the electricity and get out,” he said.
Schweitzer described the fire as burning in “some of the heaviest timber in Montana.”
The Missoula County Sheriff’s Department issued the evacuation order. Sheriff Mike McMeekin was knocking on doors Saturday to advise people to leave, Cpl. James Riekena said.
The blaze erupted as Montana struggles through a wildfire season that began earlier than usual and has resulted in dozens of fires, ranging from less than an acre to tens of thousands.
In northwestern Montana about 26 miles north of Whitefish, a fire burning in the Flathead National Forest prompted an evacuation order for an estimated 50 homes. In addition, a camp set up for firefighters had to be moved late Friday because the fire was threatening it, spokeswoman Ema Braunberger said.
The Brush Creek fire had burned 14,000 acres, or nearly 22 square miles, by Saturday evening and was about 2 miles from the firefighters’ camp, which was moved several miles to the east, Braunberger said.
Other major fires Saturday included one north of Helena that was last measured at 37,000 acres, or about 58 square miles, and was projected to grow Saturday with the help of winds. Concerns included a 100-kilovolt power line that NorthWestern Energy said was about half a mile east of the fire.
To defend the line, NorthWestern removed vegetation near it, sprayed the line’s poles with chemical fire retardant and put protective wrapping on the poles, said utility spokeswoman Brandy Powers.
A 100-kilovolt line “is big, but it’s not our biggest,” Powers said.
A seven-mile recreation closure prompted by the fire for the Gates of the Mountains area along the Missouri River would end Sunday, state officials said. The U.S. Forest Service determined public safety no longer was a concern, according to the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. The closure was imposed July 26.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for areas near several other wildfires, including one south of Glacier National Park that burned about 5,000 acres in one day for a total of nearly 30,500 acres, or more than 47 square miles.
In southwestern Montana in the Lolo National Forest, an evacuation order was issued Saturday for 10 homes threatened by a 1,270-acre fire that jumped over a creek. Officials said nine of the homes were vacated before the order and the last chose to stay. The fire is in a cluster of blazes, one of which triggered an evacuation order Friday affecting 38 homes.
Embers caused spot fires that burned more than the usual evergreen trees, said Pat McKelvey, information officer for the fire cluster. The burning of even willow and aspen trees “is an indication of just how dry it is around here,” McKelvey said.
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