Fire Has Seeley Lake Residents Bracing for the “Grind”

By Beacon Staff

SEELEY LAKE (AP) – People are settling in for the long haul as a large wildfire less than two miles from town continued to burn Wednesday through dry brush and trees, and fire officials said it could be more than a month before it’s extinguished.

Residents of the Seeley Lake area, about 50 miles northeast of Missoula, are “over the adrenaline phase” of the nearly week-old fire and moving into “the grind,” said Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin.

Firefighters were urged to pace themselves as they battle a blaze that has burned 15,000 acres, or more than 23 square miles, since Friday. It was 10 percent contained, and officials said the fire could burn until mid-September when more substantial rain is likely.

“We’ve got about a month and a half of this left,” safety officer Scott Bates told fire crews at a morning briefing. “You guys have got to pace yourselves.”

People in Seeley Lake seemed resigned to the smoke, lost commerce and the general upending of everyday life. The popular tourist town has some 5,000 residents in the summer and about 1,000 in winter.

High school volleyball coach Jodie Miller wondered whether she’ll have enough players for the start of practice next week since many families fled the fire.

“It’s going to be hard, but I’m just thankful the firefighters are here,” Miller said Wednesday at Grizzly Claw Trading Co., a gift store/coffee bar she manages during the summer. “I don’t think the town is going to burn up.”

That was the fear after the fire surged Saturday, for a time advancing a mile an hour. By Wednesday, 10 percent of the blaze was contained. One house was destroyed, and another was damaged.

At a community meeting Tuesday night, fire commander Glen McNitt said the “next few days are going to be probably OK,” adding the weather could change the fire rapidly.

Ordinarily, July and August are the busiest months in Seeley Lake, which sits along a scenic route to Glacier National Park.

At the Grizzly Claw coffee bar, firefighters dissatisfied with the brew at fire camp have been stopping in for espressos, but Miller said the dollars won’t match those lost while the highway through town remains closed to all but local traffic.

Fifteen miles away, Dee Schmitz made do Wednesday at the travel trailer that has housed her, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter since they evacuated their home Saturday.

“You either cry or you laugh,” Schmitz said as her husband cleaned a camp stove after breakfast. “I try to keep it light and laugh. In every disaster there’s something good, and in this one it’s that people have opened their hearts.”

One person passing by offered to come back with supplies, although Schmitz didn’t take him up on the offer. At the morning briefing, firefighters also began collecting money to help the owner of the house that burned.

At several other Montana fires, low humidity and wind gusts topping 40 mph were expected Wednesday, and red-flag warnings denoting critical fire conditions were posted for north-central, southwestern and northeastern Montana.

The most active burning was in a cluster of fires southeast of Missoula that grew to 18,500 acres, or nearly 29 square miles. Evacuations remained in effect for two subdivisions near one of the blazes, said Pat McKelvey, fire information officer.

The state’s largest wildfire, the Chippy Creek fire north of Plains, had burned 50,500 acres, or 79 square miles, by Wednesday, and residents of about 50 rural homes remained evacuated.

North of Helena, the Meriwether fire was 55 percent contained and Holter Lake, used heavily for recreation, was expected to reopen to the public Thursday after being closed July 31. That fire had burned an area of 62 square miles.

South of Billings, a 150-acre fire prompted a brief evacuation order for 250 homes but was 50 percent contained by Wednesday afternoon. Crews hoped to fully contain the blaze by the end of the day.

Authorities said a 12-year-old boy playing with fireworks started that blaze Tuesday. His name has not been released, and authorities said they were unsure how the case against him would be handled.

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