Cold Front Buys Fire Crews Time on Major Blazes

U.S. Highway 2 reopens after Sheep Fire forced closure earlier in the week, Bear Creek Fire burns up Meadow Creek Trailhead

By Molly Priddy
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 21, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated Aug. 22 at 12 p.m.

A cold front that swept through Northwest Montana on Friday night has given some fire crews battling wildfires a chance to gain some ground, after cold weather and a bit of rain helped keep some blazes from advancing.

U.S. Highway 2 has reopened as of 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, with pilot cars escorting traffic in both directions to ensure safe traffic flow through the area. Amtrak trains are also running.

The highway and the BNSF Railway line were shut down on Aug. 20 as the Sheep Fire continued to grow and encroach upon nearby Essex, causing pre-evacuation warnings for the town.

As of Saturday morning, the fire was about 428 acres, at 0 percent containment. Residents in the Highway 2 corridor around Essex are to remain in pre-evacuation orders. The fire is about 2.5 miles south of Essex in the Great Bear Wilderness, burning in very steep, difficult terrain with limited access.

More than 200 structures remain threatened by the fire, including BNSF sheds, a wooden trestle, and utilities infrastructure.

The Granite Fire continues to burn west of Marias Pass and south of Highway 2 in the Great Bear Wilderness, sitting at about 176 acres an 0 percent containment.

Crews have implemented structure protection measures on several backcountry cabins and trailhead structures and a wooden road bridge. Crews have been encountering numerous snags that need to be dealt with for safety before line construction.

The Thompson Fire continues to burn at 0 percent containment, with it’s approximate size staying level at about 14,095 acres. Crews have made significant progress mopping up some edges from burnout operations earlier in the week to contain the fire. One 20-person crew is scheduled to be flown out today. The fire remains west of the Divide and poses no threat to communities around East Glacier and St. Mary.

The Spruce Fire, which has burned about 3 acres and is 95 percent contained, is expected to fall under total control on Saturday, after three smokejumpers and a 20-person crew worked to establish lines to contain it.

The Bear Creek Fire in the Spotted Bear Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest continues to burn, growing drastically on Thursday more than 17,700 acres. Strong afternoon winds on Friday pushed the fire east down Bunker Creek and across the South Fork of the Flathead River.

Cold weather and a bit of rain has tamped down the smoke and allowed crews to get a bit closer to the fires. At this point, due to the remoteness of the area and keeping crew and the public’s safety in mind, firefighters aren’t trying to build containment around the fire, but rather focusing on point protection.

The fire burned through the Meadow Creek Trailhead, one of the most popular trailheads used to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Officials said crews were able to hustle 70 pack animals out of the trailhead in an hour before the flames came through.

Al Koss of the Spotted Bear Ranger District said some outfitters lost some gear, including saddles and tack, and the fire also burned a couple of sheds, two old trucks, and one Subaru. Otherwise, fuel-reduction thinning projects were successful in sparing about 15 other vehicles at the trailhead.

There were hikers headed toward the trailhead as their exit point from the Bob, Koss said, but wilderness rangers were able to direct them to a different trailhead.

Access to the Bob Marshall from the north is closed; access is allowed on the western and southern trailheads, Koss said.

The fire cannibalized the Late Creek Fire.

The Flat Creek Fire and the Trail Creek Fire have joined up, and are now just called the Trail Creek Fire. It is burning at more than 8,400 acres.

An extensive area closure for the Trail Creek Fire is in place in the upper Middle Fork from the Spotted Bear River Road and the Eastside Reservoir Road around Upper and Lower Twin Creek, eastward to Dolly Varden Creek.

Closures associated with the Bear Creek Fire: Meadow Creek Rd. #2826 is closed from the Wilderness Lodge to the Meadow Creek Trailhead, the Gorge Creek Rd. #549 is closed from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Gorge Creek Trailhead, the Meadow Creek Airstrip is closed, and the Eastside South Fork Trail #80 from Meadow Creek Trailhead to Black Bear Creek.

Here is a map of the Bear Creek Fire, as of Aug. 22.

Map of the Bear Creek Fire as of Aug. 22.
Map of the Bear Creek Fire as of Aug. 22.

And here is a map of the Trail Creek Fire, as of Aug. 22.

Trail Creek Fire as of Aug. 22
Trail Creek Fire as of Aug. 22

Near Noxon, fires in the Kootenai National Forest have forced evacuation orders for 30 to 40 homes, but fire information officer John Head said the cool weather on Friday night gave fire crews a chance to try to get “ahead of the game.”

“This morning (Saturday), we’re trying to take advantage of that lull,” Head said.

He said the forecast for hot and dry weather after the front makes its way out of the area could bring about more fire activity.

Head said the Red Cross set up a shelter at Noxon school, but no one has used it in the 48 hours it has been open, so it has been shuttered and placed on standby in case more evacuations are necessary.

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.


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