Firefighters Move to Protect Essex After Town Emptied

Residents near Troy issued pre-evacuation notice as wildfire grows

By Associated Press & Beacon Staff
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated: Aug. 28, 10:30 p.m.


Firefighters cut down trees and turned on sprinklers Friday after authorities emptied the community of Essex and turned back traffic where a wildfire had spread close to a highway along the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

The 1.7-square-mile wildfire crossed a key ridge south of Essex on Thursday, prompting Flathead County authorities to order evacuations and later close an eight-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2.

Of the more than 200 buildings threatened by the fire, 106 were year-round and vacation residences, including the Izaak Walton Inn.

A handful of residents chose to ignore the evacuation order and stay with their homes, Flathead County spokeswoman Jennifer Rankosky said.

“In any situation like that, you can’t force somebody to leave,” Rankosky said. “They are told that they are assuming the risk for staying.”

Firefighters stationed in the community prepared for the encroaching fire by pruning trees, wrapping outlying cabins in protective foil and setting sprinklers around homes in hopes wet vegetation would snuff out any stray embers.

Other fire crews created fuel breaks by logging trees along a five-mile stretch of forest parallel to the highway. The gaps in vegetation will reduce the risk of the fire spreading from tree crown to tree crown toward the roadway and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s main northern rail line.

“A surface fire you can deal with better than a crown fire,” fire information officer Ted Pettis said.

The logs were being loaded onto railcars and carried to a staging area out of the fire zone.

Fire crews started their day at 3 a.m. to get as much work in before 2 p.m., when fire restrictions kick in and require mechanical operations to stop.

More than 330 firefighters are assigned to the fire and two others nearby in Glacier park and Flathead National Forest that have burned a combined 30 square miles at a cost of $4.8 million. They were among dozens of active wildfires burning across Montana, with red-flag and air-quality warnings issued across the western half of the state.

Train traffic was running slowly and intermittently through the fire zone, with operators checking for updates before each train passed through, Rankosky said. The rail line is a major route for passenger and cargo trains hauling oil, coal and agricultural products to the Northwest.

Montana Highway Patrol troopers blocked highway traffic to the south and north of Essex. The closure turned a 58-mile trip from East Glacier to West Glacier into either a 330-mile detour south or, for cars willing to pay Glacier park’s entrance fee, a precarious, tourist-choked ride on Going-to-the-Sun Road over Logan Pass to the north.

Only two Essex residents spent the night at a Red Cross shelter in West Glacier, and they found alternative housing by Friday, Rankosky said.

Meanwhile, a wildfire burning near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana has prompted voluntary evacuations for the community of Heart Butte, said Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes.

Tribal authorities and law enforcement from Glacier and Pondera counties are knocking on doors to notify residents, KSEN radio reports.

The community of Heart Butte has just under 600 residents, according to census data.

The fire east of the Flathead National Forest has burned just over 1 square mile.

A total of 194,018 acres, or 303 square miles, has burned in Montana this year.

On Friday morning, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued a pre-evacuation notice for the Bull Lake area south of Troy. The order went to all residences along the Highway 56 corridor south of and including Angel Island along the east and west shore of Bull Lake from mile marker 14.5 to mile marker 20.5 on Highway 56, to include all residences in the Bull Lake Estates and Wilderness View Estates.

Pre-evacuation equals a Stage 1 “yellow” condition and means residents in the affected area should be ready to evacuate in case of increased fire activity. Residents should prepare and, if needed, take early precautionary movement to relocate, especially those with special needs, pets, livestock or those needing transportation assistance.

The fires in the Clark Fork Complex in the Kootenai National Forest and Idaho panhandle grew by approximately 1,000 acres to 14,860 acres on Thursday.

A burn-out operation across the north end of the Napoleon Fire near Troy in the Dry Creek drainage was progressing successfully until winds picked up and sparked some small spot fires. Firing operations were halted and helicopters were dispatched but quick response from the engines on-scene, including local resources from Heron, Bull Lake and Trout Creek, squashed the spots.

Water delivery helped hold the line on the southeast flank along the Pillick Ridge Trail between Highway 56 and the head of Gin Gully. The fire in Gin Gully continues to slowly back down the hill toward Highway 56 and showed significant heat on the infra-red map.

The progress of the Government Fire to the northwest was halted by fire-lines constructed at the intersection of Forest Service and private land east of Highway 56.

An audience of 175 people listened to Kootenai National Forest personnel, Hutton Team members and sheriff’s representatives from Lincoln and Sanders County at a community meeting at Camp Elohim in Troy.

Residents with questions may contact Lincoln County Emergency Management at 406-293-6295 or 406-334-0050.

Due to increased fire activity and the number of fires on the Spotted Bear Ranger District in the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness Areas, District Ranger Deb Mucklow initiated closing the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness Areas on the Spotted Bear Ranger District for public and firefighter safety.

The closure is effective Aug. 28.

“The intention of the closure is to be short term and to get the wilderness areas open as soon as it is safe to do so,” says Ranger Mucklow. “We are contacting all parties currently in the wilderness and making sure they have a plan to get to an open trailhead; and plan to leave in a reasonable timeframe.”

With the Bear Creek Fire, Trail Creek Fire and 18 other fires burning across the Spotted Bear District, numerous area and trail closures have been in place since Aug. 12.

As new fires have been detected, additional closures have gone into effect. Wilderness areas on Spotted Bear are very remote, have poor communication and are sparsely staffed, forest officials noted.

This closure will allow district personnel to concentrate on fire activity. The closure will be evaluated regularly to determine the feasibility of opening based on fire activity.

“Public safety is our main concern,” stated Mucklow.

There are additional closures on the adjacent ranger districts that are also affecting access to wilderness areas on the Spotted Bear Ranger District. Visitors are reminded that the Schafer Meadows airstrip is included in the Great Bear Wilderness closure.

The Trail Creek Fire has burned 12,250 acres, or 19 square miles. The Bear Creek Fire has scorched 34,400 acres or 53 square miles. The Squeezer Fire has burned 107 acres.

The Goat Rock Complex is approximately 4,127 acres and is burning in the Kootenai National Forest, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and Berray Mountain Area south of Libby.

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