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The Izaak Walton Inn in Essex.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

A wildfire closed off a portion of the major highway across the northern tier of Montana and shut down railroad traffic there as well, while another burning approximately 100 miles away saw evacuation orders for residents along the Bull River “expand significantly.”

In other words, the wildfire season – one many western Montanans have spent weeks, if not months, worrying about – intensified Thursday.

U.S. Highway 2 was closed late Thursday afternoon as the 232-acre Sheep fire moved within a mile of Highway 2 in the Essex area.

Ironically, it will leave Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park – which was closed for 2 1/2 weeks by a wildfire earlier this summer, rerouting traffic onto Highway 2 – as the only credible detour across the Continental Divide.

Detouring to the south will turn the 68-mile trip between West Glacier and Browning into a 330-mile journey down the Swan Valley, through Lincoln, and back up to Highway 2 along the eastern front of the Rockies through Choteau.

It’s approximately 75 miles using Going-to-the-Sun, but the popular road is usually heavily congested with tourist traffic during the day, and restricted to vehicles and vehicle combinations less than 21 feet long and 8 feet wide.

The closing of the BNSF tracks in the Essex area will affect not only freight trains, but passenger service on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

“Because of the advance of the fire toward the highway, fire managers have made the request,” fire information officer Craig DeNitto said. “Fire behavior is significant enough to ask for the closure.”

Flathead County sheriff’s deputies and Montana Department of Transportation officials implemented the closure late Thursday afternoon.

No evacuations of residents in the Essex area were ordered, DeNitto said, although all have been advised to prepare their property and themselves for possible evacuation because of the proximity of the Sheep fire.

Seven miles of the highway, from the Halfway Motel near Pinnacle on the west side, to Bear Creek on the east, were being closed. Highway 2 skirts the southern border of Glacier Park in the area.

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Northwest of Noxon, the Napoleon fire grew to approximately 2,500 acres and an initial evacuation of 17 families on Wednesday “expanded quite significantly,” Kootenai National Forest spokesman John Head said Thursday.

The newest evacuation orders will "rope in the East Fork Bull River Road, and on Highway 56 run from mile marker 3 to mile marker 14,” Head added.

Additionally, pre-evacuation notices were going out to the rest of the Bull River Highway on both sides of the road, the Old Bull River Road and west from the junction of highways 56 and 200 to mile marker 6 on Highway 200.

“The fire danger is extreme,” Head said, “and the forecast is for a cold front to move in (Thursday night), prior to and during which they expect erratic winds and extremely low humidity.”

As firefighting resources stretched thin across the West, the Napoleon fire was expected to transfer from a Type 3 incident management team to a Type 2 team Thursday night, Head said.

“It’s a really fluid situation,” he went on. “Resources are pretty competitive across the nation, but we anticipate an influx of resources with the transfer to a Type 2 team.”

An American Red Cross shelter was set up for evacuees at Noxon School, although none of the first 17 families evacuated used it Wednesday night, Head said.

“I suspect they had other alternatives,” he said.

The Napoleon fire was the largest of 17 to 20 burning in the area, Head said, “although there have been a lot of changes, and some of them have grown together.”

There are also wildfires burning down toward the Clark Fork River, Head said.

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Two dozen Montana wildfires – many of them complexes with multiple blazes – were listed on InciWeb on Thursday. The largest, now at 14,095 acres, is the Thompson fire in Glacier Park, and part of the complex that includes the smaller Sheep fire that closed Highway 2.

At the Northeast Kootenai Complex, where firefighters have been dealing with five separate fires in the Eureka-Fortine area, fire information officer Katie Knotek said they were grateful to have been given the services of two Montana National Guard helicopters.

The helicopters dropped more than 20,000 gallons of water on the complex’s smallest fire, the 10-acre Barnaby fire, on Wednesday and was working the largest, the 3,000-acre Marston fire, Thursday.

“We have limited resources, as has everybody,” Knotek said. “It’s a huge relief to get the two Chinooks – they’re making a huge impact.”

While the helicopters worked the Marston fire, four of the seven crews assigned to the Northeast Kootenai Complex were assigned to the nearby 160-acre Sunday fire.

“Even though it’s fully lined, it keeps spotting across the line,” Knotek said. “There’s been a lot of smoke today, which we’re hearing is from fires in Washington, as well as our own. There’s been a heavy inversion, which is good – it’s kept temperatures cooler, and moderated fire activity. But we’re supposed to get winds tonight.”

The smoke was thick in some places. Air quality was listed as “very unhealthy” Thursday in the Flathead Valley, Hamilton, Butte and Bozeman by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Receiving “unhealthy” ratings were Missoula, Frenchtown, Seeley Lake, Libby, St. Mary, Helena, Great Falls, Billings and Lewistown.

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