Fire Threatening Homes Southwest of Polson, Mont.

By Sarah Cooke | July 27, 2007

Fire crews in northwest Montana worked to keep a fast-moving wildfire from destroying homes Wednesday, as officials near here asked residents near the Meriwether fire to leave their seasonal homes.

The 3,000-acre Garceau fire, likely sparked by lightning Tuesday morning, led at least one family to temporarily leave their home in the Irvine Flats area southwest of Polson, officials said.

Residents of another 20 homes were on standby to leave, said Rich Janssen, fire information officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Helicopters and air tankers joined 120 firefighters at the fire scene Wednesday, with 350 more personnel ordered and a highly trained “Type II” management team expected to take over Thursday, Janssen said.

“We’re working hard on (creating) some dozer line, and the tribal crews today, along with firefighters from the Polson and Ronan departments, plan to do some burnouts and get some line in to make things safer,” he said.

The fire burned within a few hundred yards of homes in the Polson area.

Two years ago, resident David Nash had a friend who was a retired forester advise him on a tree thinning project near his house.

“It’s a showcase for how much it can help,” Nash told the Missoulian. “The fire burned through the grasses in there, but left the trees alone.”

North of Helena, the Meriwether fire was estimated at 2,100 acres Wednesday afternoon, after making runs at Sacajawea Peak and into Mann Gulch, where 13 smokejumpers died in 1949 after being overrun by flames. The lightning-caused blaze led to the closure of the 28,000-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the east side of the Missouri River, including the Coulter Campground.

Late Wednesday, the fire moved with 11/2 miles of houses along river. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle called for an evacuation of the American Bar, Beaver Creek Road and Nelson Road areas _ a total of 44 homes _ across from the Gates of the Mountains marina, said Amy Teegarden, fire information officer.

The popular Gates of the Mountain boat tours were still operating, and campgrounds along Holter Lake managed by the Bureau of Land Management remained open, Teegarden said.

“We’re very cognizant of the scenic values along the riverway,” she said. “That’s one of our management objectives as well.”

A type I team took over management of the fire Wednesday evening, bringing more resources.

“Now that the fire is coming out of some of the steeper country, we’ll be able to put some boots on the ground before too long,” Teegarden said.

Fire crews are going to start using long-term retardant, “a substance that once the water evaporates from it, is still effective,” she said. It will be dropped at “critical points where it makes sense.”

In west-central Montana, crews continued using explosives to create fire line on the Ahorn fire west of Augusta. The blaze _ burning in steep, heavy timber _ grew by more than 6,000 acres to a total of 15,000 acres by Wednesday and was expected to keep expanding in the coming days, fire information officer Bob Bayer said.

Air tankers pretreated a ridge on the northeastern front to slow the spread of the fire to the north toward Gibson Reservoir. Crews continue to build fire line from Benchmark Road north toward Gibson Reservoir.

A new fire two miles south of Glacier National Park doubled in size to 420 acres Tuesday night, said Denise Germann, public information officer for the Flathead National Forest. No structures were threatened by the blaze west of Marias Pass, but several roads and trails in the area were closed.

On the Hi-Line, Malta area ranchers helped local, state and federal fire crews corral a 5,600-acre fire sparked by lightning that destroyed one outbuilding. The Black Coulee fire was contained as of Wednesday afternoon, and crews were mopping up and prepping for new blazes, said Gary Kirpach, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Lewistown office.

“Twenty-four hours ago it was getting pretty wild out there,” he said. “The fire kept changing directions on them.”

In southern Montana, state and federal officials announced more fire restrictions in the wake of continued hot, dry weather.

Open burning was banned in the Gallatin National Forest and on BLM lands in Park and Gallatin counties, one day after a similar order was announced in the neighboring Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The Stage 2 rules restrict smoking to vehicles and clear areas and limit the use of chain saws, other engines and welding to between 1 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks adopted the restrictions on all the land it manages in Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties. FWP land in Beaverhead and Madison counties will ban open burning starting Friday.

In Yellowstone National Park, firefighters battling the 1,200-acre Owl fire awoke to cloudy skies and cool temperatures.

The lightning-caused blaze was discovered Friday in the park’s northwest corner and grew from 300 acres in a matter of hours Monday and Tuesday, crossing Specimen Creek and continuing to spread to the north.

Firefighters resumed helicopter bucket drops Tuesday, but rain that fell in and around the park Tuesday night did not reach the fire area, park officials said Wednesday.

A “type II” management team took control of the blaze Wednesday morning, allowing Yellowstone staff to focus on new fires in the park. That included the 540-acre Beaver Dam fire burning in the backcountry near the southeast arm of Yellowstone Lake.

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