Sheriff’s Office Issues Evacuation Order for Essex Area, Highway 2 Closed

Officials say the Sheep Fire was rapidly moving toward Essex, forcing the mandatory evacuation of the community

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

Updated: Aug. 27, 10 p.m.

WEST GLACIER – Residents of Essex could be out of their homes for up to a week, depending on what the Sheep Fire does in the coming days, according to fire officials.

About 30 people attended a community meeting about the Sheep Fire in West Glacier Thursday night, just hours after the community of Essex was evacuated. On Thursday, the fire crossed a ridge along the McDonald Creek, worrying fire officials that spot fires could ignite in Essex.

Incident Commander Mike Goicoechea said that officials estimate the fire has grown to anywhere between 1,200 and 1,400 acres. Officials say the fire is about a half-mile from the community of Essex and about 120 yards from BNSF Railway’s main line. Both the railroad and U.S. Highway 2 were closed shortly after the evacuation was announced.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see what the fire does here in the next few days,” Goicoechea said.

Fire managers are particularly worried about the weather on Friday and Saturday. The National Weather Service has already issued a fire weather watch for Saturday afternoon.

Firefighters have been building a fire break near the railroad tracks that they hope will limit the spread of the fire and also give them a safe spot to perform back burns in the coming days. A Type I hotshot crew arrived on Thursday to help battle the blaze and Goicoechea said another one was on its way.

Over 200 structures, including homes and cabins, are at risk, according to fire managers. The Izaak Walton Inn was also evacuated. The American Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at the West Glacier Elementary Schoool at 160 Old River Bridge Road.

Essex has been under a pre-evacuation order since Aug. 19 as the Sheep Fire threatened the community and two critical transportation corridors, U.S. Highway 2 and BNSF Railway’s main line between Seattle and Chicago. As of Thursday morning, the fire had burned more than 1,111 acres just south of Essex. It has doubled in size this week and is burning in steep terrain with limited road access.

As of Aug. 24, fire crews had used 55,400 gallons of fire retardant and 1.1 million gallons of water to fight the Sheep Fire and others in the complex. Poor visibility has hampered aerial efforts in recent days.

Residents seeking information about the status of their property in the Essex area can call 406-758-2111.

Further west, the Clark Fork Complex continues to burn along the Montana-Idaho border. At least five fires there have burned more than 13,000 acres as of Thursday evening and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office was issuing a pre-evacuation order for all homes along Highway 56 in the Bull Lake area, specifically between mile markers 14.5 and 20.5, south of Troy.

This story will be updated when more information becomes available.


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