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Elmo 2 fire reaches houses amid extreme fire weather

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ELMO — Just outside the evacuation zone for the Elmo 2 fire near Dayton, Jeremy Combs waited inside a pickup truck with his girlfriend’s daughter Amaja.

To Amaja's left, flames torched the treetops along Hog Heaven Ridge. Plumes of smoke from heavy timber burning completely covered the red sun. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles dotted the corridor under dusk.

The family briefly returned to their Lake Mary Ronan home after getting evacuated on Friday. But a sudden second mandatory evacuation at 3 p.m. Monday forced the family to leave the area, likely until the fire runs its course.

“We’ve had to pack up before, but we didn’t have to leave,” Amaja said as she looked through the red cloud where her home is.

In their attached trailer, some of their dogs sat in kennels, surrounded by wooden furniture the family took before they left. 

The fire was moving northbound toward Lake Mary Ronan, where the family breeds corgis and French bulldogs. The area is heavily forested, and smoke could be seen 6 miles away as Combs left his house Monday night.

While the family got the dogs safely out, they left their goats behind. Amaja’s grandfather also forgot his heart medication, temporarily splitting the family as the two went back into the fire zone.

“It’s been very chaotic,” Combs said. “We don’t know what to expect when we get home.”

Firefighters at the Elmo 2 fire turned to structure protection Monday night as the fire exploded off of dry fuels and high winds. After burning about 1,000 acres on Friday, the blaze made a remarkable run into the Salish Mountains over the weekend before pushing back toward Flathead Lake on Monday.

Flight tracking data Tuesday afternoon showed “scooper” planes from Bridger Aerospace making water drops along, and just to the northeast side, of the road, as well as circling some spots to the northeast of the road. Those locations were as much as 1.4 miles or farther ahead of where maps Tuesday morning placed the fire front. A variety of air tankers, including a DC-10 very large air tanker, were operating just southwest of the lake Tuesday before high winds ended tanker flight.  

Fire dispatch confirmed Tuesday morning that multiple structures have been lost in the blaze, now estimated to be at least 16,000 acres. Lake County dispatch confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Sheriff Don Bell ordered the full evacuation of Lake Mary Ronan and the northern side of Lake Mary Ronan Road, placing the entire corridor from Highway 93 to the lake — and all residences around the lake — under full evacuation. Previously, only the south side of the road was under an evacuation order.

The expanded evacuation order was issued at 4:17 p.m., according to dispatch. A spokesperson for the fire incident management team confirmed the expanded evacuation.

“It's been a very challenging 36 hours,” said John Thompson, incident commander for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 7. “We might need some divine intervention to help this weather.”

Thompson spoke to area residents at the Elmo powwow grounds Monday night as smoke billowed along the top of Hog Heaven Ridge. Roughly 10% of the fire was contained along the south edge as of Tuesday morning, bordering Highway 28.

Chief Cliff smoldered from the westerly winds. To its north, hand crews and heavy machinery made containment lines along Highway 93.

Highway 93 is only accessible by pilot car between Elmo and Dayton, with potential closures depending on the fire. Officials ask the public to not stop on the road for fire viewing. Lake Mary Ronan State Park and the boat ramp at the Elmo fishing access area are closed to the public.

The wind blasted hot air down from the Lake Mary Ronan corridor, where fire officials ordered evacuations around 3 p.m. Monday. Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said flames got within 200 feet of some houses as deputies and other first responders moved people out of their homes.

There is a mandatory evacuation for residents west of Highway 93 between Lake Mary Ronan Road and Chief Cliff Lane. A pre-evacuation notice is in effect for those north of Lake Mary Ronan Road and places east of Highway 93 between Elmo and Lake Mary Ronan Road.

Mission Valley Power has shut down electricity to Black Lake Road, the Proctor Club House and Hog Heaven area through Tuesday.

Those evacuated can go to two Red Cross shelters: one at Polson High School and one at Somers Middle School. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also have hotel rooms available for elders and immuno-compromised people.

A second public meeting for the fire was scheduled at the Elmo powwow grounds at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

On the fire line, hotshot crews worked into the night Monday digging lines to protect homes from burning. Bulldozers tore up the ground around houses while trees on the forested hillside north of Chief Cliff Lane torched, sending embers hundreds of feet into the sky.

Fire behavior is expected to moderate later this week, but Tuesday was expected to be another extreme weather day. Winds out of the west were forecast to blow at 18 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. Temperatures were down to the mid-80s, with 12% humidity.

“We have to back off a little bit based on how active it really is and how aggressively it is burning,” said Bruce Giersdorf, a fire scientist for the incident management team. “For the next couple days, we are going to see that same thing.”

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Strong winds, warm temperatures and low humidity created prime conditions for extreme fire behavior on Thursday. About 20,600 acres have burned.

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