Bear Creek Fire Blows Up to More Than 17,000 Acres

The Sheep Fire near Essex nearly doubled in size Friday to more than 400 acres

By Clare Menzel and Justin Franz
Jonathan Moor, public information officer for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, watches as the Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 21, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated Aug. 21, 4:45 p.m.

A fire deep in the Spotted Bear Ranger District exploded from 465 acres to more than 17,000 acres, destroying vehicles and trailers belonging to a local outfitter.

The Bear Creek Fire is now the largest wildfire in the state and one of more than a dozen large blazes burning across the region this week.

According to public information officer Ema Braunberger, the Bear Creek Fire blew up Thursday afternoon and even jumped the South Fork of the Flathead River. As of Friday afternoon, the fire had grown to more than 17,000 acres. The fire has resulted in numerous trail and area closures on the Spotted Bear Ranger District.

Until Thursday, the Trail Creek Fire had been the largest of the fires on the Spotted Bear Ranger District. On Friday it had burned more than 7,ooo acres east of Swan Lake. The nearby Flat Creek Fire had burned 268 acres as of Friday, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.

U.S. Highway 2 remains closed between West Glacier and East Glacier Park as the Sheep Fire crawls northwest in the Great Bear Wilderness, nearing the BNSF Railway main line and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. On Friday, it grew from 232 acres to 428 acres.

The fire is burning a half a mile from the transportation corridor and a BNSF trestle. More than 200 other structures in the Essex area are also at risk.

Though Essex residents two miles away from the fire are prepared for possible evacuation, officials are more immediately concerned about the fire jumping across the highway corridor into Glacier National Park, said Jonathan Moor, a public information officer for Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

No ground crews have been deployed due to the thick woods and steep terrain, which does not offer firefighters a safe enough path to retreat in the case of a sudden wind shift.

On Thursday, a heavy helicopter was successful in applying approximately 29,000 gallons of retardant on portions of the perimeter. Heavy, mercurial winds this morning and afternoon have prevented helicopters from dropping fire retardant today.

More than 50 employees from the incident management team are stationed along Highway 2, observing the fire’s progress and the shifting weather conditions with the hope that winds will slow and temperatures will drop as a northern front approaches.

Two other fires within the Thompson-Divide Complex are still burning. As of Friday, the Thompson Fire was remaining steady at around 14,000 acres and the Granite Fire near Marias Pass grew from 65 acres to 178 acres.

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

Fire information officer John Head said 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 2,6o0 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. On Friday, a Type II incident management took control of the Napoleon Fire and nearly dozen other blazes along the Montana-Idaho border. The nearby Hamilton Fire has burned more than 900 acres as of Friday afternoon and the Star Gulch Fire has burned more than 500 acres.

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.

North of the Flathead Valley, the fires of the Northeast Kootenai Complex continue to burn between Whitefish and Eureka. As of Friday, the Marston Fire had burned more than 3,200 acres near Fortine. Although no evacuation orders are in effect at this time, fire managers have identified areas near Stryker and Fortine that could be evacuated should the fire rapidly grow.

On the Tally Lake Ranger District, the Sunday Fire has burned 60 acres, down from the 160 acres that were reported earlier in the week.

This story will be updated when more information becomes available.