Essex on Edge as Wildfire Surges Toward Highway 2

Residents collect belongings as Sheep Fire rages toward southern edge of Glacier National Park

By Justin Franz
Aaron Archer, left, and Mike Burr wrap fire retardant material as the Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

ESSEX – As smoke billowed overhead Thursday afternoon, Steve Burglund and friends grabbed as much as they could from his cabin and piled it into two pickup trucks and a trailer.

Everything had to go — lamps, tables, family photos, his dad’s old speed skates and skis. Lots of skis.

“I don’t know if the fire will get here, but the chances are good,” Burglund said. “The building can be replaced.”

Burglund was joining dozens of other people in Essex who were packing what they could and preparing to evacuate the area as the 232-acre Sheep Fire chewed through timber in the nearby Great Bear Wilderness. Over 200 structures in the area are at risk, including homes, according to fire managers.

As of Thursday afternoon, the fire was within one mile of U.S. Highway 2 and BNSF Railway’s main line along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Authorities shut down both the highway and railway mid-day near Essex as ash fell on the road and smoke blanketed the region.

High winds on Thursday fueled the fire east toward the highway and Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Fire officials are concerned the blaze could cross into Glacier National Park overnight, when an inversion is forecasted to keep temperatures higher than normal.

“That potential is definitely highly likely,” fire information officer Jonathan Moor.

»»» Click here for updates on wildfires burning throughout Northwest Montana.

Throughout Thursday, helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the blaze. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., flames were climbing into the treetops and crossing a ridge within view of the Goat Lick Overlook just east of Essex.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office issued a pre-evacuation order on Wednesday evening and since then people have been packing their belongings and preparing for the worst.

Burglund drove up from his home in Kalispell to collect as much as he could from the cabin and wrap part of the porch with fire-resistant foil. Burglund’s family has owned the cabin, which was built nearly a century ago, for about a decade.

“It’s nothing special but it’s ours. It’s our happy place,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place but we’ve always worried about this day.”

Locals said the last time a wildfire roared through Essex was during the legendary Big Burn of 1910. Lisa Steiner, who lives next door with her husband Ted, said they’ve always known it was a possibility but it didn’t make it any easier packing up their cabin.

“We’re doing what we can and seeing what happens,” she said. “You’ve got to respect Mother Nature.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.