TARKIO – When Jason Cataldo saw the 100-foot-long flame front coming over the ridge toward the Hole in the Wall Lodge last Friday, he prepared for the worst.
“We knew if the wind blew right, it would come right over the top of us, and that’s what it did,” the lodge manager and outfitter said on Monday. “It burned right to the creek, even burned a little island in the creek. Clearwater Crossing took the brunt of it, just match-sticked it. Of the Forest Service buildings there, the tack shed might have survived. The cookhouse and some of the storage sheds, all there is left is metal and bed frames and cinder-block chimneys.
“One guy saw a bear hot-footing it across the hillside, and there were deer standing in the creek. I saw seven grouse running down the road. It was like Noah’s Ark.”
It was also a run of nearly 9,000 acres when the West Fork Fish Creek fire surfed the front of a thunderstorm that blew through western Montana on Friday, enraging wildfires across the northern Rocky Mountains.
By the end of the weekend, Cataldo’s lodge and eight other private cabins were still standing, but almost 12,000 surrounding acres were torched.
Sunday delivered between one-third and three-quarters of an inch of rain across much of the same area, leaving behind clear skies and calm fire lines for the first time in more than a week.
A Type 2 incident management team was getting in place just as Cataldo finished hauling 14 horses out of the mountain canyon southeast of Tarkio. It now has about 140 firefighters supported by two heavy and three medium helicopters on scene.
The West Fork Fish Creek fire has prompted closure of the southern portion of the Ninemile Ranger District and mandatory evacuations of residents along Fish Creek Road south of the Big Pine Fishing Access site, including the Quartz Creek, Rivulet and McFarland areas.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has closed the Alberton Gorge section of the Clark Fork River, including the Cyr Bridge, Triple Bridge Ralph’s Takeout and Tarkio access points.
Despite the intense flames, no private structures have burned in the Fish Creek area so far. Cataldo credited cooperation among neighbors, firefighters, and Tricon Lumber Co. (which sent in equipment to clear the road) for the defense.
“All in all, it just really worked out when people work together,” Cataldo said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office has sent preliminary evacuation warnings to residents along Petty Creek Road farther east of the fire. However, that area is threatened by a separate blaze: the Boulder fire, which is part of the much larger Motorway Complex of fires mostly across the border in Idaho.
“It’s doing some minimal creeping and smoldering today and nearing the Montana-Idaho border,” fire spokeswoman Shawna Hartman said on Monday. “Nobody has left their homes yet, and the Highway 12 corridor is open. We haven’t shut down Lolo Hot Springs.”
A spike camp of about 90 firefighters near Lolo Hot Springs has done some structure protection around the resort and nearby cabins. They’re overseen by the incident commanders of the Clearwater-Municipal-Motorway North Complex, which has burned a total of almost 83,000 acres between Lewiston, Idaho, and the Montana border.
U.S. Forest Service officials have closed all recreation sites in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest due to the widespread fire danger.
Similar danger has closed most of the northern Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, as well as large parts of southern Glacier National Park. The Spotted Bear District fires include 19 active blazes totaling about 3,300 acres, plus the Bear Creek fire (67,594 acres), Trail Creek fire (21,084 acres) and Three Sisters fire (431 acres).
On the eastern side of the Continental Divide, the Spotted Eagle fire forced evacuation of about 175 people from the community of Heart Butte, and it continued to run ahead of 40 mph wind gusts on Monday. The fire was estimated at 50,917 acres and has 101 firefighters assigned.
Evacuation warnings were scaled back along Highway 56 on Monday as the Clark Fork Complex of fires moderated. The fires had threatened homes along East Fork Bull River Road and both sides of the highway.
However, Sanders County Sheriff Tom Rummel warned residents that falling trees, snags and the potential for new flare-ups meant their troubles aren’t over, and pre-evacuation notices remain in place north of Highway 200.
The complex of 12 lightning-caused fires straddling the Montana-Idaho border near Noxon has burned almost 15,000 acres. A crew of 374 people is assigned to it.
A newcomer to the fire list was the Holter fire, which started on Sunday afternoon and threatened more than 100 homes and cabins in the Holter Lake area between Craig and Wolf Creek. The fire has burned 274 acres, and was pounded by smokejumpers, state and National Guard helicopters, retardant bombers and local fire departments.
Lewis and Clark County sheriff’s officers issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents on the north side of Beartooth Road, and campgrounds along Holter Lake were evacuated.
The Morrell Creek fire 7 miles northeast of Seeley Lake was nearly 75 percent contained on Monday after burning about 825 acres. It has a crew of 164 people assigned and has triggered closures of the Morrell Falls and Pyramid Pass trailheads.