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More wildfire evacuations in western Montana (copy)

Allison Stahl carries a basket of clothing to her car as firefighters walk past on their way to establish a hose line in Essex on Thursday. The area was evacuated Thursday afternoon in the face of the growing Sheep fire threatening the community at the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

Aggressive fire Saturday led the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office to issue an immediate emergency evacuation notice in Libby.

Elsewhere in Montana, the West Fork Fish Creek fire exploded, other burns persisted and air quality in Missoula County was deemed hazardous for exposures longer than an hour.

The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office issued the evacuation notice for all residents of Lower Granite Lake Road, Granite Creek Road, Willow Road, Prospect Creek Road, Winchester Drive and Granite Lake Road, according to a news release. The sheriff requested people vacate their homes by 1 p.m. Saturday.

The sheriff's office could not be reached before press time about whether all residents had been alerted and complied with the notice.

The Red Cross shelter was staged at the Assembly of God Church, 105 Collins Avenue, in Libby, said the news release from the sheriff's office. It said aggressive movement of the Klatawa fire in the Granite Creek drainage led to the notices.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office also issued a precautionary pre-evacuation notice for residents and businesses on the west side of U.S. Highway 2, starting from Pearl Street near Atkins South Gas Station and extending south to Bear Creek Road, the news release said. This also includes all residences on Snowshoe Road south of Hogan Drive.

***

In the West Fork Fish Creek fire southwest of Tarkio, evacuations remained in place, and the fire grew from 2,922 to just under 12,000 and was zero percent contained Saturday evening, according to a public information officer.

"The fire did make a very big push," the officer said, noting it moved north and east.

Some 110 personnel worked on the fire. Crews were from a Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew, engine, Type 2 Incident Management Team.

The latest information Saturday evening on InciWeb noted the following about the fire:

The closure extends from Schley Mountain, to the east of Clearwater Crossing Trailhead, north to Quartz Creek and west to the Superior Ranger District border and the Idaho/Montana border. The closure includes the Schley Trailhead, the Clearwater Crossing Trailhead and Campground and St. Patrick Peak Trail. 

Stage 3 evacuations were in place by the Mineral County Sheriff's office for all of Fish Creek Road from Interstate 90 to the Mineral/Missoula county border line, Lower Fish Creek along I-90, Quartz, McFarland, Rivulet and Cyr Bridge.

A preliminary evacuation notice was in effect along Petty Creek Road.

Five structures were lost overnight at the Forest Service administrative site, all private residences remain intact.

Threatened resources included private homes and cabins in the Fish Creek drainage and at the Hole in the Wall Ranch. Lolo National Forest Developed Recreation sites including Clearwater Crossing Campground. 

John Thompson’s Type 2 Incident Management Team assumed command of the blaze Friday evening. Ninemile Ranger District personnel, along with local firefighters, continued to work with incoming resources throughout the evening. Firefighters were disengaged from direct suppression efforts around 4 p.m due to safety concerns during increased fire activity in the afternoon winds. Hose lays and sprinklers are in place to protect some structures as a precaution in the Clearwater Crossing area. 

Reconnaissance occurred Saturday morning to provide updated information on the fire perimeter and size. The Lewis and Clark Hotshots will be assessing the Quartz and McFarland areas for structure protection needs. A structure protection group will continue to assess and support the Fish Creek area.

A cold front was expected early Saturday evening, and earlier fire weather coupled with dry fuels was expected to create very active fire behavior.

***

Near Essex, more than 200 structures are still threatened by the Sheep fire in the Flathead National Forest, which remained at zero percent contained Saturday evening, according to a news release and the most recent information on InciWeb.

Mandatory evacuation remains in place. U.S. Highway 2 is still closed with intermittent train service, including Amtrak.

The fire was at 1,595 acres, and threatened structures include BNSF's wooden snowsheds, a wooden trestle and utilities infrastructure, the release said.

The InciWeb updated noted the following:

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The Sheep fire is burning in very steep terrain with limited access. The fire is about 1/8 mile from the train tracks between Tank Creek and MacDonald Creek. The fire has not crossed Sheep Creek to the south. Because of clouds and heavy smoke, the fire was less active Saturday. Winds were significant, especially on ridges.

Construction of a shaded fuel break using heavy equipment on the west side of the BNSF railroad tracks from Sheep Creek to Dickey Creek drainages started Wednesday. This activity continued Saturday around Essex and efforts were made to remove the logs and slash that accumulated. The objective of this fuel break is to reduce the fuel component and space the tree crowns to limit fire spread and torching.

It will also provide a safe location for firefighters if they decide to burn out fuels in advance of the fire front. Helicopters were used to drop water on the fire until later Saturday due to poor visibility. Structure protection in Essex continues. A night shift continues to monitor fire movement and patrol the Essex area and Walton compound for any encroaching fire activity.

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In the same area, fire crews noted few developments in the Thompson and Granite fires, according to the public information officer.

Ted Pettis, with Irv Leach's Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team, said crews put in fires lines on the Thompson fire and they are monitoring it. They did recon on Granite, but they can't do much more without additional resources.

The troops are focusing on the areas under evacuation, he said. 

"That's really our strategy," he said. "We could use another 100 people, and we could work on the Granite fire diligently.

"Everybody is having the same problem, across Idaho and Montana, anyway. There's just a shortage of resources, so we're kind of doing the best we can with what we've got," Pettis said.

***

The Little Joe fire area was under a red flag warning Saturday, according to a news release from the Lolo National Forest.

The Little Joe Fire is a lightning ignited blaze approximately 7 miles southwest of St. Regis on the Superior Ranger District and is estimated to be 150 acres in size, the news release said.

The fire is burning in an area of downed lodgepole. The fire exhibited only moderate fire behavior Friday, with 2- to 4-foot flame lengths and some single tree torching.

Saturday, crews focused on on monitoring fire behavior and structure protection, and 30 personnel were on the scene. The management of the fire has been transferred to a Type 3 Incident Management Team.

The news release said other resources such as crews and engines were ordered, but the status of the order was not available. 

***

Air quality was not good in Missoula County, according to a note from an air quality specialist:

As of 6 p.m. Saturday, air quality in the Missoula Valley was unhealthy for one-hour exposures and hazardous for the longer, cumulative exposures. In Seeley Lake, air quality for the one-hour average improved to moderate while the cumulative exposure in Seeley Lake was still at very unhealthy.

When air quality is unhealthy, people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors. People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan. People experiencing symptoms of heart or lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their health care provider.

When air quality is hazardous, all people should limit or avoid outdoor exertion and stay indoors when possible. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heart or lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their health care provider.

Fires burning across the border in Idaho continue to send smoke to Missoula County. While there was a very minor improvement in air quality Saturday, there is a significant chance of improved air quality overnight or Sunday as an approaching cold front improves mixing. However, all the fires in the multi-state region meant more smoke may get blown this way, and clean air was not a certainty.

In the Bitterroot, air quality was unhealthy for short-term exposure and hazardous for long-term exposure.

Because smoke conditions can change rapidly and vary widely based on location, wind, fire flare ups and proximity to fires, the department encourages individuals to use visibility as a guideline to help gauge air quality at a given time and place and take appropriate precautions.

More smoke information is available at co.missoula.mt.us/airquality/. 

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