UPDATE: Wildfire West of Elmo Grows Beyond 10,000 Acres

Area residents from Big Arm to Lake Mary Ronan evacuated as wildfire spreads rapidly, closes state parks

By Mike Kordenbrock
Courtesy photo

Updated: 4:40 p.m.

A wildfire burning west of the Lake County community of Elmo led to residential evacuations Friday evening as firefighters from multiple agencies converged on the blaze, including aerial and ground resources.

By Saturday evening the “Elmo 2” fire was estimated to be greater than 10,000 acres in size and 0 percent contained. Firefighting personnel are anticipating continued extreme fire behavior amid red flag warning conditions, including high heat and low humidity, that are expected to persist through the weekend.

Some evacuation orders were lifted Saturday afternoon. According to C.T. Camel, a fire information officer with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fire Division, residents who access their homes off Highway 28, including those who live in Chief Cliff Estates, are being allowed to return home. Camel provided the update on evacuation orders at about 12:30 p.m.

Fire officials believe the fire originated Friday in thick grass in the Deep Draw area off Highway 28 about 4 miles west of the town of Elmo. The fire began to spread rapidly early Friday evening. Initial reports described the fire possibly originating off Highway 28 near mile marker 39. The fire has since made its way into timber north of Highway 28, where CSKT Fire Division reports it to be burning thick, standing and dead timber, that hasn’t been exposed to fire in several decades.

By Saturday afternoon the incident commander was Darrell Clairmont, and Robert McCrea was tapped as a Type 3 incident command trainee. A 3:30 p.m. update on the fire issued through CSKT Fire Division and shared on the Polson Chamber of Commerce Facebook page stated “hot and dry conditions combined with gusty winds will increase fire behavior,” and that air resources including heavy tankers and helicopters will be used to stop fire spread to the north and west. A total of 125 personnel, from at least seven different agencies, have been dispatched to the fire.

According to the same update, Highway 28 remains closed to through traffic, and while the Chief Cliff Estates evacuation has been lifted, homes south of Lake Mary Ronan Road remained in evacuation status. Highway 28 was first closed Friday night due to the fire. Fire officials are asking drivers on Highway 93 to be aware of hazards near the fire, including smoke and firefighter vehicles.

On Friday, just before 9 p.m., an update shared on the Polson Chamber of Commerce Facebook page stated that the wind-driven fire had been moving quickly to the east and northeast.

Due to an imminent safety concern, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed Lake Mary Ronan State Park and Big Arm State Park in Lake County due to wildfire danger.

An evacuation order was issued for the Elmo area on the west side of Flathead Lake around Montana Highway 28 and Lake Mary Ronan Road from mile marker 5 to U.S. Highway 93, as of the morning of July 30. The Elmo 2 Fire is burning in the area. 

Campers at both Lake Mary Ronan State Park and Big Arm State Park have been evacuated and the sites are closed until the safety issues are resolved upon further notice.

As of 10 p.m. Friday, Lake County dispatch reported that the sheriff’s office wasn’t available to provide more details as the situation unfolded due to the volume of agency resources dedicated to the fire, including officers who had been going door to door for evacuations from Big Arm up to Lake Mary Ronan.

Speaking close to midnight Friday, Camel, the CSKT fire information officer, said Flathead County Disaster and Emergency Services had made the call to evacuate from Lake Mary Ronan Road at mile marker 5, to Highway 93.

Camel said that the fire was burning north of Elmo along the Chief Cliff ridgeline, where it was growing to the east. He said the fire had also been pushing towards Lake Mary Ronan Road. No injuries or structure losses had been reported yet, according to Camel.

Montana Red Cross has opened a shelter at Linderman School, 312 4th Ave. E. in Polson, for those displaced by the fire. Residents can also request services by calling 800-272-6668.

Helicopters filling their water buckets were visible from Elmo, through which Highway 93 passes as it winds its way around the west shore of Flathead Lake. By 8:40 p.m. Friday, the Montana Department of Transportation was reporting that Highway 28 was closed from mile marker 36 to mile marker 47 due to wildland fire in the area.

In parking lots off Highway 93, including at the Elmo post office, area residents began congregating Friday evening as they awaited more news amid a growing cloud of smoke that began to settle over the area and block out the sun as a large plume continued to billow to their west.

Skip Moorhouse, a resident of Chief Cliff Estates, said he was told to evacuate at about 7:45 p.m. He and other residents described the speed with which the fire was moving, and their efforts to water down lawns and structures, and gather up pets with the time they had before they were told to go. 

A wildfire burns west of the Lake County community of Elmo. Photo by Mike Kordenbrock

In the 14 years he’s lived in Chief Cliff Estates, Moorhouse said there have been fires off Highway 28, a little further west, and he’s been put on standby; but in the past the fires were stopped before things escalated.

“Because of the breeze, this caught. It jumped (Highway) 28, it went from the north side to the south side of 28. And it just exploded,” Moorhouse said.

“The fire companies have been absolutely wonderful. I can’t believe the quick response,” he added.

For current information on wildfires in Montana, visit https://www.mtfireinfo.org.

A wildfire evacuation checklist can be found here: https://www.livingwithfire.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Evacuation-Checklist-2020-one-page.pdf

This story will be updated.

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