A wildfire that ignited on the afternoon of Friday, July 29, near the Lake County town of Elmo, was estimated to be nearly 13,000 acres in size by Monday morning and zero percent contained.
As of 2 p.m. Monday the incident management team on the fire was recommending to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office the evacuation of the Lake Mary Ronan corridor, according to a 4:30 p.m. update on the fire’s InciWeb page. A 9 p.m. update to the InciWeb page stated that mandatory evacuations were in place for Lake Mary Ronan Road, Black Lake Road, and the surrounding areas.
“The winds are pushing from the west towards the east, so the greatest area of threat is that northeastern side of the fire,” said Jacque Lavelle, a public information officer on the fire who spoke to the Beacon at about 5:30 p.m. Monday.
As of 6:30 p.m. MDT had closed Highway 93 from Elmo (mile marker 77) to Dayton (mile marker 83) due to fire activity. Drivers should use Montana Highway 35 as an alternate route. Before the closure the incident management team on the fire had been working to arrange pilot cars to help vehicles navigate the road amid low visibility. Smoke is expected to continue limiting visibility along nearby roadways overnight and into Tuesday morning.
Highway access updates can be found at www.511mt.net
A public meeting about the Elmo fire was scheduled for Monday evening at the Elmo Pow Wow Grounds off U.S. Highway 93 at 7 p.m. By late Monday morning no structure losses or injuries from the fire had been reported, but at the Monday night meeting, officials announced that one structure had been lost Monday afternoon.
The Montana Red Cross has set up an evacuation center at Polson High School at 1712 2nd St. W. for people displaced by the fire. A second shelter has been set up Somers Middle School at 315 School Addition Road in Somers. People can also request Montana Red Cross services by calling 800-272-6668.
Official estimates put the size of the fire Monday morning at 12,975 acres, which represents a growth of about 2,000 acres from Sunday. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A July 31 incident summary spreadsheet from the National Geographic Area Coordination Center lists the fire as human caused. The GACC provides support to federal and state agencies for wildland fire emergencies.
Firefighters are estimating the fire began at 4 p.m. on July 29. The fire has burned in short and tall grass, as well as timber, including some standing and dead timber that hasn’t been exposed to fire in decades. As of July 31, 20 structures were considered threatened.
The Elmo fire start location has been described as between 4 and 8 miles west of Elmo in the Deep Draw area off MT Highway 28 near mile marker 39. By early Friday evening the fire was spreading rapidly to the east, and continued to show grow to the north and east into the night.
Firefighters worked Saturday to hold the fire north of Highway 28, while continuing to work the west and east sides of the fire. Most of the fire activity Saturday was seen on the north and northwest end. On Sunday, firefighters worked the fire on its northwest, west, and eastern sides. On Sunday the fire was most active on the northwest side in the Cromwell Creek area during the afternoon and evening.
Monday morning, firefighters were anticipating that the fire would continue backing its way to the north and east, with occasional group torching and uphill runs. Firefighters generally planned to hold and improve existing lines, while continuing to scout and construct direct lines to limit the size of the fire’s perimeter, with plans also in place to use aviation resources to help keep the fire spread in check amid a red flag warning and the anticipation of critical fire weather.
Evacuation orders were issued Friday night for some area residents. By Saturday those evacuation orders had been lifted for Chief Cliff Estates and other people who access their homes via Highway 28. Highway 28 was closed Friday night before being reopened to traffic on Sunday, with the caution that smoke may cause low visibility. Pre-evacuation warnings remained in effect Monday morning for residents who live south of Lake Mary Ronan Road and west of Highway 93.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks by Saturday morning announced it had closed down the Big Arm Unit of Flathead Lake State Park and also Lake Mary Ronan State Park. By Sunday the Big Arm unit had reopened, but Lake Mary Ronan State Park remained closed. Other ongoing closures include the boat ramp at the Elmo Fishing Access Site.
An update posted on the fire information website InciWeb Monday morning stated that firefighters expected to see the fire behavior observed Sunday continue through Monday, including “short crown runs in narrow strings of timber.” Firefighters were supported on Sunday by four scooper planes and four single engine air tankers on the northwestern portion of the fire. The Bitterroot Hotshots worked the northwestern part of the fire on Sunday to improve fire lines where possible. Helena Hotshots worked the northeastern portion of the fire on Sunday towards Chief Cliff Estates. Idaho Panhandle Hotshots on Sunday constructed lines to the west of the fire. Firefighting crews were also engaged directly with the fire on its eastern edge. Bitterroot Hotshots, and a Type II Initial Attack Team worked along the northern portion of the fire, and fire engines patrolled Highway 28 to extinguish heat close to the road.
A combined 293 firefighting personnel have been assigned to the fire, more than tripling the amount that initially responded Friday night. The incident commander is John Thompson of the Type 2 Northern Rockies Team 7. More resources for the fire have been requested, which could increase the number of personnel assigned to the fire, according to Public Information Officer Sara Rouse. As of July 31, firefighting efforts had cost $600,000.
Winds and high temperatures have been a daily feature since the start of the fire, and heading into Monday firefighters expected that trend to continue, and that they could encounter continued hot and dry conditions with temperatures reaching the mid 90s. Forecasts predict 5 to 8 MPH winds from the southwest eventually shifting into winds out of the west at 10 to 14 MPH, with gusts capable of reaching 25 miles per hour in the afternoon.
A wildfire evacuation checklist can be found here: https://www.livingwithfire.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Evacuation-Checklist-2020-one-page.pdf
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