Wildfires in and near Glacier National Park that closed major routes across the Continental Divide, and others that have forced evacuations of homes near the Bull River, have left Montana’s largest fire as almost an afterthought.
Yet the Bear Creek fire south of Hungry Horse Reservoir and southeast of Swan Lake has produced the most dramatic run of any fire in the state this summer, speeding across almost 17,000 acres of forest in less than four hours last week.
“It started when a series of lightning strikes came through on Aug. 12,” Al Koss, public information officer for the Spotted Bear fires, said Wednesday. “We got quite a bit of water and retardant on it when it started, but it still grew a bit.
“It was 465 acres on the morning of Aug. 20. Then we got high winds and low humidity, the smoke lifted, and it went from 465 acres to over 17,000 in three to four hours.”
In other words, over the course of an afternoon the Bear Creek fire grew by more acres than any other wildfire in Montana had already burned.
It now covers 28,700 acres in and outside the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
Not only that, just a few miles north, the Trail Creek fire – which began when the same lightning storm ignited 13 fires in the vicinity that have now merged – is burning 11,000 acres. Another 20 small fires, ranging in size from a tenth of an acre to 200 acres, are also burning in the Spotted Bear Ranger District.
“The smoke is pretty thick up here,” Koss said. “We’re really socked in. The visibility is maybe 200 yards.”
The explosion of the Bear Creek fire, which started in the Bunker Creek drainage, set off quick responses by rangers and other U.S. Forest Service personnel with the Flathead National Forest.
Two trailheads used to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness, including the major one on its northern boundary, Meadow Creek, are located nearby.
“A number of outfitters use the area to store stock,” Koss said. “We moved people out of Gorge Creek and Meadow Creek, and the Forest Service assisted outfitters in moving 70” horses and mules.
“Once they were out, the fire moved completely through the area,” Koss said. “Vehicles that were close to a couple of hay tents burned – there were three vehicles lost – but in the public section, none of the vehicles were touched. The reason we didn’t lose anything there is in the last three years we’ve had a fuels-reduction thinning sale. The real story here, when you talk about thinning, is it works. There’s still green grass behind the area where fuels were reduced.”
The wildfire continued to move east and crossed the South Fork of the Flathead River. Fortunately, the Meadow Creek Bridge did not burn, and firefighters have used it to move personnel and equipment into the fire zone.
Koss estimated about a third of the fire is burning inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the other two-thirds is outside it on the Flathead National Forest.
With 15 vehicles parked in trailhead parking lots as the fire began its run, rangers moved out to locate hikers and redirect them out on safe routes.
“Most were savvy enough to have left keys” hidden on their vehicles, Koss said. Ones who hadn’t gave rangers their keys, and helicopter pilots ferried the keys back to the Spotted Bear District Ranger Station.
Vehicles were then relocated to the ranger station. Families were contacted to let them know loved ones had been located and might be late returning because they had to exit the wilderness via alternate routes.
Once out of the Bob, the hikers had or have to catch rides to the ranger station to retrieve their vehicles.
“It actually worked pretty slick,” Koss said. “About 20 people were contacted and told their exit was blocked. The rangers in the backcountry would radio back so we could contact family members and let them know their people were OK.”
Wilderness rangers in other parts of the Bob have alerted visitors of the dangers to the north, and the word has also been spread at the Big Prairie Wilderness Ranger Station, which Koss said is a regular stop for many people using the wilderness area.
Wilderness rangers remain staged at the Black Bear Cabin, which has been wrapped for fire protection, in case any hikers unaware of the situation show up.
Meadow Creek Road is being used as a fire break, and the break is being widened in strategic areas, with feller-bunchers and skidders removing trees and vegetation.
Koss said the heavy machinery is also at work reducing fuels in the five miles between the Jungle Creek area and the Wilderness Lodge, one of three guest ranches in the area but the only one on the west side of the Flathead River.
The other two, the Diamond R Ranch and the Spotted Bear Ranch, are located on the east side of the river. All are known for their combination horseback ride-float trips, where guests ride horses into the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, and then float out on rafts.
“They’re private businesses and buildings that have been here since the 1930s, located on public land that they lease,” Koss said. Because the buildings are privately owned, structure protection for them is being coordinated through Flathead County.
The Forest Service is protecting federal property. Koss said everything from hitching posts to bridges, cabins and the Spotted Bear fire lookout have been wrapped for fire protection, all as “precautionary measures, to be ahead of the curve,” he added.
A Type 3 incident command team from Minnesota headed by former Montana resident Timo Rova is in charge of the Bear Creek and Trail Creek fires. The team is sharing resources with the ranger district, which is monitoring the other 20 fires burning nearby.
With the mixture of federal and local responders, Koss said approximately 140 people are assigned to help battle the multiple fires.
Meantime, at the 12,285-acre Clark Fork complex of fires on the Montana-Idaho border north of Noxon, the number of fires was reduced Wednesday, but only because three of the fires grew and merged together.
Fire information officer Scott MacGregor said the Sawtooth fire is now within half a mile of the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, a popular spot filled with giant red cedars, some at least 1,000 years old and 12 feet in diameter.
Even if the fire reaches the 100-acre stand – and winds are pushing it that way – MacGregor said authorities “think it would survive pretty well.”
“That cedar grove has been there 1,000 years, and survived the big fires in 1889 and 1910,” he said. “It sits down in a drainage where there’s pretty high humidity, and there’s been some fuels reduction there, too.”
The road into the scenic area was closed Monday.
“We expect the fire to at least burn by there,” MacGregor said. “We’ve initiated actions to help the natural barriers there so the cedar grove isn’t impacted as much.”
Otherwise, MacGregor said, the Clark Fork complex aircraft have been grounded by heavy smoke, but the smoke reduced fire activity enough to throw two Hotshot crews to work on a direct line on top of one of the fires that has forced evacuations.
“It’s really smoky here again,” he said, “but they’re taking advantage of it.”
At the Sheep fire a mile outside Essex on the south side of Glacier Park, fire information officer Jonathan Moor said crews made “significant progress” Wednesday on establishing a shaded fuels break between the fire and the small town that is home to the Izaak Walton Inn.
The fire has grown to 1,002 acres. It was listed at 607 a day earlier.
A “shaded fuels break” clears out the understory of a forest – brush, small trees, deadfall – and also thins mature trees so limbs don’t touch.
“If a fire hits” a shaded fuels break, Moor said, “it tends to stall out.”
Essex residents remain in the “set” stage of the “ready, set, go” evacuation strategy, as they have for several days.
BNSF Railway has dedicated some of its equipment to moving machinery into areas along its train tracks in the area and to removing trees that are being cut.
The Sheep fire is part of Thompson-Divide complex of fires. The other two fires in the complex also got new acreage figures early Wednesday evening.
The Thompson fire burning in remote backcountry in Glacier Park is now 17,090 acres, and the Granite fire is 386. Total acreage for the complex is now 18,478.