Highway 2 Closed Near Essex as Firefighters Battle 232-Acre Wildfire

Evacuation orders issued for between 30 and 40 homes near Noxon as separate fire rages

By Justin Franz & Dillon Tabish
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated Aug. 20, 5:15 p.m.

Authorities closed a section of U.S. Highway 2 near Essex on Thursday to provide safe access for firefighters battling the Sheep Fire, a 232-acre blaze that has grown to within 1 mile of the highway and river corridor near the southern boundary of Glacier National Park.

There are no evacuation orders, but Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry and his deputies notified 106 residents in and around Essex that they must prepare to leave and recommended they begin loading their cars immediately, Flathead County emergency information officer Jennifer Rankosky told the Associated Press. Forty-two people were home and notices were left at the rest of the homes.

Over 200 structures in the area are at risk, including homes, according to fire managers.

Fire and county officials were assessing how to best protect structures in the community. Red Cross officials were preparing a shelter in West Glacier 30 miles north on U.S. Highway 2, Rankosky said.

The highway closure was announced Thursday afternoon for the seven-mile section of highway from milepost 178 to 185, from the Halfway Motel near Pinnacle on the west side to Bear Creek on the east side. A section of railway is also being closed.

The highway and railway will reopen once conditions are safe, authorities say.

BNSF Railway is preparing in case the Sheep Fire makes a run toward Essex, according to spokesperson Matt Jones. On Wednesday, the railroad was positioning specialize water cars in Essex to help protect a snow shed and bridge that are potentially in the fire’s path. Jones said the railroad is hiring contract firefighters to help protect their assets but are also ready to help battle the blaze any way they can.

The Sheep Fire grew from 90 acres to 232 in the last 24 hours in the Great Bear Wilderness.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Thursday, forecasting hot, dry conditions that could fuel fire behavior.

Faced with dozens of fires and a shortage of manpower and equipment across the West, Montana is receiving help from firefighting teams from the Midwest, Canada and Puerto Rico, along with troops from the Montana National Guard, Montana Direct Protection fire coordinator Harold Gemmell told the AP.

The smoke from wildfires has degraded the air quality in parts of western Montana so badly that officials are advising children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory problems to stay indoors.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued the warning Thursday for the Flathead Valley, Hamilton, Butte and Bozeman.

The air is only slightly better in other western Montana cities and towns from Libby to Missoula, and in the central Montana communities of Great Falls, Helena and Lewistown.

The two other fires in the Thompson-Divide Complex continued to burn out of control on Thursday.

The Thompson Fire has scorched 13,932 acres in Glacier National Park and remains uncontained. The fire has forced the closure of numerous backcountry trails and campgrounds.

The Granite Fire has burned nearly 40 acres near Marias Pass and has forced the closure of at least one U.S. Forest Service trail.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

More homes are being evacuated north of Noxon as a fire burning in the Kootenai National Forest spreads.

Fire information officer John Head says evacuation orders were issued for between 30 and 40 homes on Thursday. Approximately 14 homes were evacuated farther north along Montana Highway 56.

The Napoleon Fire has burned more than 2,160 acres. The lightning-caused fire continues to burn in heavy timber and jumped containment lines and is now creeping onto private property along the valley floor, according to Head.

Head says warnings also have gone out to homes south of the evacuation area to the junction with U.S. Highway 200, and west along the highway four nearly four miles.

Head says the wind and low humidity has made the fire more active, and there is concern that it could combine with other blazes burning nearby.

A shelter has been set up in Noxon.

Firefighters across Northwest Montana are preparing for a busy day with strong winds and hot temperatures that could fuel the many wildfires that have cropped up across the region this week.

The National Weather Service in Missoula has issued a fire weather watch for all of western Montana and a red flag warning for the Glacier National Park area.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

Perhaps the most visible fires near the Flathead Valley are the ones burning within the Northeast Kootenai Complex, northwest of Whitefish. The largest, the Marston Fire, has burned more than 3,000 acres near Fortine, as of Thursday morning.

Although there are no evacuation orders at this time, fire managers have identified areas near Stryker and Fortine that would be evacuated should the fire rapidly grow.

The Sunday Fire has burned about 160 acres on the Tally Lake Ranger District on both the Flathead and Kootenai national forests. Similar to the Marston Fire, officials expect the Sunday Fire to grow and an evacuation plan has been created.

Elsewhere within the Northeast Kootenai Complex, firefighters made progress on the Weigel and Dunn fires near Libby. As of Tuesday morning, both blazes are 100 percent contained and were being handed back over to the Montana DNRC.

Elsewhere on the Flathead National Forest, three fires in the Spotted Bear Ranger District have torched more than 4,000 acres. The largest of them, the Trail Creek Fire, has burned 3,500 acres. Firefighters are trying to prevent it from crossing the Spotted Bear River Road and trail closures are in effect.

The Bear Creek Fire has burned 465 acres in the area of the Chipmunk Creek Fire of 2000.

And the Flat Creek Fire has burned about 270 acres. Firefighters are mostly focusing their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to important resources, although they are not actively suppressing it.

The Three Sisters Fire, which has smoldered deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness for more than a week, grew to more than 400 acres over the weekend. The lightning-caused fire is being allowed to play its natural role on the landscape.

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Melton 1 Fire has burned more than 3,000 acres west of Charlo. The fire started during Friday’s lightning storm and no structures are threatened at this time.

This story will be updated when more information becomes available.