SEELEY LAKE (AP) – Wind is the enemy and safety the top priority as fire crews try to protect this resort town from a wildfire that has prompted evacuation of some 675 homes, a fire commander said Tuesday.
“Your safety is going to determine what we can and can’t do out here,” fire commander Glen McNitt told firefighters at a briefing Tuesday morning.
More than 22 square miles have burned since the fire near Seeley Lake began Friday about 50 miles northeast of Missoula. McNitt noted that winds on Saturday pushed the Jocko Lakes fire 4 to 4½ miles in as many hours on Saturday.
A return of higher winds could push the fire eastward toward the town, McNitt said.
“It has the potential to burn into Seeley Lake and the surrounding area,” McNitt said. “Wind is our biggest concern right now.”
The National Weather Service was forecasting west winds of 8 to 12 mph Tuesday with gusts to 25 mph. Humidity was expected to drop, creating hot and dry conditions.
Some residents who fled the wildfire were briefly allowed to return Tuesday to check on their homes. They had until 11 a.m. to leave the area, before the typical midday acceleration of fire activity.
Firefighters were taking the unusual step of building containment lines in advance of the fire, rather than attacking it from the sides.
“We’re trying to build lines ahead of the fire because the town is in the way and people’s homes,” said Ricardo Zuniga, a fire information officer.
But firefighters were reminded Tuesday morning that their lives were more important than protecting property.
“No heroics, OK?” said Steve Wallace, with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “When you get the word to pull out, pull out.”
Safety officer Scott Bates told firefighters that escape routes are marked with pink flags.
“There are so many roads – you can take a wrong road,” he said.
So far, one house has been destroyed and another damaged. A commercial building and seven outbuildings were also damaged.
North of Plains, about 50 rural homes were under evacuation orders in the path of the 43,200-acre Chippy Creek fire, said information officer Bob Dyson.
The evacuations cover an area north of the Lower Dry Fork Reservoir to Hubbart Reservoir, Dyson said, adding that the communities of Hot Springs and Lone Pine are not included in the evacuation order. He said residents were asked to be out of the area by noon.
“This is in anticipation of some extreme fire behavior this afternoon due to high winds and low humidities,” Dyson said.
The 363-acre Tin Cup fire west of Darby also prompted evacuation of 37 residences.
An evacuation order was issued Monday for 31 residences in the area of Bunkhouse Road and another six homes in the area of Tin Cup road. Evacuation warnings were given to 47 residences in the area.
The evacuations went smoothly, said Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman.
“But we are asking people who live close to the fire area to be prepared and make arrangement for your horses to go somewhere,” Hoffman told the Missoulian newspaper.
Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick said a few people chose to remain in the Seeley Lake area despite the evacuation order. Montanans tend to think of themselves as self-sufficient and some “believe that their residence won’t be affected or that they can fight the fire,” he said.
Linda Weaver and her husband were among a handful of evacuees camping at a highway rest stop near Seeley Lake on Monday. The couple had cut short their vacation in Washington state when they heard about the fire and returned to pack up their Seeley Lake home.
“We’ll go back when they tell us we can go back,” she said. “I hope it’s soon.”
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