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SUPERIOR – The West Mullan fire defense started at dawn on Monday, as local crews burned out brush above homes against the hillside to prevent the main fire from reaching them.

What started as a small grass fire Sunday afternoon grew to 150 acres by nightfall. By Monday morning, aerial mapping showed at least 700 acres scorched.

“It went from a quarter-acre to one acre in five minutes,” said Mineral County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Lapinski, who was one of the first on the scene Sunday evening. “You could see how you could die in a fire really easy. It ran up that hill quicker than a man could run up it.”

Nevertheless, Lapinski said he saw some advantages to the fire’s location. Above the few houses along West Mullan Road, the flames were heading north and east into steep, uninhabited hillsides. Just across the Clark Fork River, both the timber and the houses were much thicker.

But the fire also threatened homes along Pardee Creek Road west of Superior, and was moving toward Flat Creek Road, which runs north out of town. Fire crews evacuated at least 10 homes Sunday night, and were making plans for around 35 residences that could be in the path.

“Pretty soon, we’ll look at pulling the trigger on some more evacuations,” Superior Volunteer Fire Chief John Woodland said Monday morning. That came true around 3 p.m. when at least 10 families along Pardee and Flat Creek roads were formally ordered to evacuate, according to U.S. Forest Service public information officer Pat McKelvey.

By 5 p.m., the fire was burning the tops of Charette, Water and Shaw gulches west of Superior, and appeared to be moving farther east. Helicopter water drops concentrated on hot spots in the Water and Shaw gulches, while a Neptune Aviation P2V retardant bomber made low runs between the subdivisions and timber at the base of the hills.

Missoula-based Neptune’s BAe-146 jet tanker was also dropping retardant at the scene, along with at least one single-engine air tanker.

“We saw the sirens going by and came outside,” Superior resident Alex Billet said. “At first it was a little plume of smoke, and then 30 minutes later it was spreading really fast. It’s really dry up there.”

Woodland said a possible electrical equipment failure on private property was the suspected cause. McKelvey said the cause remains under investigation.

A type 2 fire team was assembling at St. Regis to direct fire operations. That should bring at least 55 people to the scene, along with two Hotshot crews.

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The early morning burnout operation filled the valley around Superior with smoke Monday. Motorists on Interstate 90 drove with headlights until 11 a.m., when river winds cleared the air.

Those winds, and the possible thunderstorms behind them, had most of the incident command team’s attention, McKelvey said.

“They’re calling for full suppression of the fire,” McKelvey said. “There’s some weather coming. This fire will be dictated by weather and topography. We’re gearing for those (storm) cells pushing it everywhere.”

Mineral County Sheriff Ernie Ornelas and local fire officials were working out plans for moving people if the fire moves downslope to residential areas. The biggest concern is the Flat Creek Canyon running north out of Superior. It is currently several ridges east of the fire front, but winds blew that direction all Monday.

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.