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HAMILTON – An alert valley resident put up the alarm for the newest wildfire on the Bitterroot National Forest – on Downing Mountain, just west of Hamilton – on Thursday night.

And on Friday morning, sheriff’s deputies gave notice to 37 Hughes Creek residents in the West Fork of the Bitterroot that the massive Mustang Complex fire was moving their way.

Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay said a Charlos Heights woman called fire officials at about 8 p.m. Thursday when the cloud of gray smoke covering the valley lifted enough for her to spot a black column of smoke near Downing Mountain.

Smoke moved back into the valley and the column disappeared before the fire could be confirmed.

The woman called fire officials again three hours later when she saw a faint glow on the mountain. McKay said officials confirmed the sighting then.

The lightning-caused Sawtooth Mountain fire had grown to about 30 acres by Friday afternoon, despite water drops from three helicopters.

The fire was burning in extremely steep and rugged terrain on top of a ridge, making it inaccessible to firefighters on foot.

It is about two miles southwest of the 2010 Downing Mountain fire, and is burning mostly in grass and timber in an avalanche chute.

McKay said plans call to continue the air attack, while looking for the potential of attacking the fire on the ground if conditions make that possible and resources are available.

A helicopter also made water drops Friday on a small fire burning in the Fred Burr drainage that started several days ago.

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In upper Hughes Creek in the West Fork of the Bitterroot, Ravalli County sheriff’s deputies issued stage 1 evacuation notifications to residents Friday, in response to the 205,000-acre Mustang Complex fire – which is burning mostly on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho.

The fire crossed over the state border several days ago and has burned about 3,000 acres on the Bitterroot National Forest east of this year’s Chrandal Creek fire and west of last summer’s Saddle Mountain fire.

Officials from the Mustang Complex are deploying between 150 and 200 firefighters to a new fire camp in the West Fork to address that threat.

West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell said the fire hasn’t made a significant run since Tuesday, when it grew by nearly 30,000 acres in a single night.

“Right now, they are looking for places to counter the fire if it does attempt to move in a big way again,” Campbell said.

After the Chrandal Creek fire earlier this summer, Campbell said most of the residents in the Hughes Creek area have done a good deal of work to make their homes defensible.

“It’s not their first rodeo,” he said. “They’ve been through this before.”

Fire officials in Idaho are predicting the fire will reach the Hughes Creek area this weekend.

The Bitterroot Forest implemented an emergency closure on the West Fork District in anticipation of future fire behavior from the Mustang Complex. The closure includes trails 650 and 106 (Divide Trail), and the Mine Creek Road. Hughes Creek and Woods Creek roads remain open.

In Idaho, residents along U.S. Highway 93 between Hull and Sheep creeks and in the Hull, Hughes and Sheep creek drainages have been strongly advised to leave their property due to the proximity of the fire.

Highway 93 remains open to traffic.

The fire is expected to reach the Gibbonsville area in Idaho this weekend.

The Idaho National Guard has been mobilized to help with transportation and checkpoint security. Guardsmen were expected to arrive on the scene Friday.

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In Salmon, Tommie Palmer said the community has come together to help residents affected by the fire. She volunteers with the American Red Cross and is a member of the Salmon Valley Baptist Church, which is offering shelter to evacuees.

“At this time, we’re in good shape at the shelter,” Palmer said. “We haven’t had that many people come in yet. We have had an outpouring from the community of people offering housing, pasture for horses and storage. It’s been wonderful.”

Those that have taken shelter at the church “are, of course, very concerned about their homes and property,” Palmer said. “They hate to leave their places behind. They wonder if it’s necessary to depart when they don’t see the presence of the fire.

“We just have to depend on the Forest Service and the sheriff and the local people to predict what’s best,” she said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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