Western Wildfires Threatening Homes and Disrupting Tourism

Reynolds Creek Fire one of many across the west

By Matt Volz and Kristin Bender, Associated Press
The Reynolds Creek Fire on the east side of Glacier National Park. Photo by Erin Conwell.

HELENA – Firefighters on Thursday braced for a fresh run by a wildfire that sent tourists fleeing from hotels and campgrounds in Montana’s Glacier National Park, while a blaze threatening hundreds of homes in Northern California shot flames 100 feet in the air.

Both states are ravaged by drought, and rising temperatures and strengthening winds greeted newly arrived crews taking aim at the blaze in the Northern Rocky Mountains. It has burned more than 6 square miles along the eastern side of the Montana park during prime tourist season, when lodges and inns have been booked for months.

Some visitors packed up and left the region immediately after seeing smoke rising above ridge tops, while others diverted to different parts of the park. Officials said only a small part of Glacier’s 1,718 square miles have been closed by the fire, and most of its top attractions on the east and west sides are still open.

The fire ignited Tuesday and then swept along ridges near the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s most popular roadway, heading toward the small community of St. Mary on the park’s eastern boundary.

More than 600 campers who fled the St. Mary Glacier Park KOA on Wednesday have been replaced by officials using the campgrounds as a staging area to fight the fire just over a ridge a few miles away.

Campground owner Susan Brooke said firefighters marked which of her cabins to save and planned to use the pool to fight the flames if the blaze moves closer to the community. Brooke sent her staff to safety, but she and her family are staying.

“There’s not much you can do about it but keep people calm,” Brooke said. “The guys, the firefighters, are good about keeping us in the loop about what’s going on.”

The fire destroyed Baring Creek Cabin, a historic backcountry structure, torched one abandoned car and closed 21 miles of the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. Nearly 700,000 people visited the park in July last year, and about 95 percent of them traveled some length of the roadway.

No new evacuations have been ordered in the park Thursday.

Meanwhile, the California fire threatened 200 homes and ranches outside the Napa Valley. It had spread to more than 10 1/2 square miles Thursday, and black smoke could be seen as far away as San Francisco and Sacramento.

More than 520 firefighters battled the wildfire, struggling to access the blaze through rugged, brush-choked terrain about 45 minutes east of the popular wine country.

No wineries were at risk, said Capt. Amy Head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Bryan Campbell said he remained hopeful that his brother’s ranch was still standing Thursday after the wildfire forced them and their neighbors to evacuate 85 horses.

“We had like 30 to 40 people show up to help, a bunch of people with trucks and trailers,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Campbell, his father and brother were among the last to leave the Windgate Training Center on Wednesday night.

“All we can have is a good attitude toward it,” he said. “As long as the winds don’t pick up, we’re hoping everything will be fine.”

Authorities said the cause of the California fire, which ignited Wednesday near Lake Berryessa, remains under investigation, but the state’s deep drought has helped it thrive.

“The conditions out there because of the drought have caused all of the fuel and vegetation to become extremely dry and readily available to burn, so it’s definitely contributed to how quickly the fire has spread,” Head said.

A new fire that broke out in Northern California on Thursday afternoon shut down a highway linking Sacramento and Reno, Nevada, and brought a handful of evacuations, federal fire officials said.

A wildfire also is raging in southeastern Washington state, where crews were working Thursday to prevent it from reaching a watershed that provides drinking water for the city of Walla Walla.

The fire has burned one home and more than 8 1/2 square miles, leading to evacuation orders for several dozen homes in two rural areas. The fire was human-caused, officials said.