Seeley Fire Creeps Closer to Homes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) _ A state of emergency was declared in Montana on Sunday because of wildfires, including one northeast of Missoula that had forced the evacuation of 200 homes and continued to grow unchecked.

Lighter wind and higher humidity were expected at the Jocko Lakes fire Sunday, and the wind was largely blowing the blaze back onto itself after a change in direction, said Pat Cross, fire information officer. However, the blaze had crept to within a mile from some evacuated homes, and wind-blown embers were still sparking spot fires up to 2 miles ahead of the main blaze near the popular getaway spots of Seeley and Placid Lakes, authorities said.

“We’re focusing on structure protection, establishing some anchor points and trying to get some fire line in on the south and east flanks,” Cross said.

The wildfire started Friday and exploded to 8,000 acres, about 12 square miles, by late Saturday. That estimate was expected to increase significantly after better mapping, which has been hampered by smoke and wind.

Cross estimated containment at zero percent, “only because there isn’t a lower number.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared the state of emergency on Sunday, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal money to help fight the blaze. FEMA will pay 75 percent of eligible state firefighting costs for the fire, such as the fire camp, equipment and supplies, agency officials in Denver said. The money does not cover damage to homes or other buildings.

No homes had burned, but authorities closed a 30-mile stretch of Montana 83 for safety reasons, Cross said.

Nearly 60 Montana National Guard members were deployed Sunday morning to provide security in the area, said Maj. Gen. Randy Mosley, the guard’s adjutant general.

They join soldiers and airmen already helping with fires in the Helena, Kalispell and Missoula areas, he said.

In northwestern Montana, about 50 homes ahead of a fire in the Flathead National Forest remained evacuated, and crews had to move their fire camp after the blaze burned to within 2 miles.

The Brush Creek fire, about 26 miles west of Whitefish, grew to nearly 16,000 acres, or 25 square miles, as of Sunday morning and was expected to keep spreading, fire officials said.

North of Thompson Falls, the Chippy Creek fire had burned an estimated 36,140 acres, or 56 square miles, in the Lolo National Forest and surrounding areas and continued to spread to the east and northeast. All state, federal and Plum Creek roads between U.S. 2 and the Little Thompson River were closed.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for areas near several other wildfires, including a blaze south of Glacier National Park that burned 9,000 acres in one day for a total of nearly 30,500 acres, or more than 47 square miles.

The Skyland fire destroyed two ranch sheds and killed several cattle in its path Saturday. Continued wind was expected to keep pushing the blaze to the south and possibly the north, said Dale Warriner, fire information officer.

In southwestern Montana, residents of 10 homes threatened by a 1,570-acre fire that jumped over a creek remained evacuated Sunday. 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.

The complex has cost $1.2 million to fight so far, said Pat McKelvey, fire information officer.

Another major Montana fire, the Meriwether blaze north of Helena, was 35 percent contained Sunday at 38,685 acres, or about 60 square miles.

A seven-mile closure of the Missouri River prompted by the fire ended Sunday. 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.

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