Winds whipped wildfires around western Montana into a renewed fury overnight Saturday into Sunday, briefly trapping firefighters, burning buildings, and forcing new mandatory evacuations.
Synoptic winds, National Weather Service meteorologist Luke Robinson called them Sunday. “That’s the fancy word for it,” said Robinson. Also the polite term, given the havoc wreaked by the flames.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the conditions out there are working in our favor today," said Larry Bickel, public information officer for the Lolo Peak fire.
Near Arlee, 16 firefighters found themselves trapped between the Liberty fire and a spot fire Saturday. All escaped safely. East of Eureka, the Caribou fire doubled in size during a 4-mile run Saturday, burning “an unknown number” of structures and forced a full evacuation of the West Kootenai area.
Glacier National Park closed part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Sunday, evacuated the area around the Lake McDonald Lodge, and started removing historic artifacts from the lodge itself — all because of the Sprague fire, which last week destroyed the park’s century-old backcountry Sperry Chalet.
The long-problematic Lolo Peak fire in Ravalli County upped the ante yet again, necessitating more mandatory evacuations (see related story). The Little Hogback fire — part of the Sapphire Complex of fires near Rock Creek — also flared up, and the Granite County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations for 35 homes late Saturday night.
The Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake grew by more than 15,000 acres, and saw new evacuation orders and warnings issued Sunday in Powell County. And the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office issued a mandatory evacuation notice Sunday for people living near the West Fork fire near Libby.
Seven fires burning near Plains, Trout Creek and Thompson Falls grew large enough Saturday to warrant a takeover by the Western Montana Type II Incident Management Team. Dubbed the Highway 200 Complex, it includes the Moose Peak, Miller Creek, Deep Creek, Reader, Reader 2, Cub Creek and Sheep Gap fires, with the Sheep Gap and Reader fires posing the most danger to public safety.
Seemingly every few hours Saturday night and Sunday, the Red Cross sent out a new notice about the opening of another shelter for evacuees. (See accompanying list.)
And, for a time on Saturday, not a single air quality monitor in the entire state of Montana registered Good air. The best was to be seen in Cut Bank, where a Moderate rating looked enviable. Sunday afternoon, the Missoula City-County Health Department listed air quality as Unhealthy in Missoula, Frenchtown, Clearwater, Rock Creek, Florence, Lolo, Arlee and Potomac. Air Quality was Very Unhealthy in Seeley Lake and Rainy Lake and expected to be Hazardous by Monday morning.
Throughout the weekend, starting Saturday afternoon and into Sunday, the usual twice-daily updates on InciWeb, the national wildfire information service, came fast and furious, including the harrowing report from the Liberty fire.
Sixteen firefighters working the Liberty fire outside Arlee are safe after being briefly trapped between the main fire and a spot fire last night, according to InciWeb.
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Shortly after 5 p.m., "several rapid wind shifts and gusts threw multiple spot fires across firelines along the northwest section of containment lines where the South Fork of the Jocko River and Liberty Creek come together," read the report on InciWeb.
Thirteen of the 16 firefighters, from a hand crew and an engine crew, fled east into a meadow — designated as a safety zone — on the north side of Liberty Creek. Three others tried to head downhill toward engines parked on Liberty Creek Road, but once at the road, were surrounded by heavy smoke and fire. They started to deploy their shelters, but wind cleared the air long enough for them to find an escape route to safety, according to InciWeb.
"All 16 are safe," stressed InciWeb. Those in the meadow were picked up by helicopter and joined the other three at a rally spot, where all were medically assessed by a fireline EMT.
The National Weather Service forecast for Monday offered little hope. A Red Flag Warning — meaning, the high winds, high temperature and low humidity that are optimal for extreme fire behavior — remains in effect until 9 p.m. Monday.
As of Sunday evening, the following evacuation orders issued Saturday and Sunday remain in effect:
Caribou fire: Everyone in the West Kootenai area.
Highway 200 Complex: From the end of River Road West to Arnold Road, at the corner of Section 11.
Little Hogback fire: Both sides of Upper Rock Creek Road and adjacent roads/neighborhoods, beginning from and including Wild Rose Loop South to Stony Creek.
Lolo Peak fire: All residents west of Highway 93 on the north side of Bass Creek Road north to residents on the south side of Hannaford Avenue and west of Florence Carlton Loop — approximately 200 homes. Due to expected extreme fire behavior and the pending weather forecast, there is no access into the evacuation order area, the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office announced Sunday afternoon. The sheriff's office and Unified Command will evaluate fire danger Monday morning with a goal of escorted access.
Rice Ridge fire: All of Coopers Lake area in Powell County. The warning area is everything else north of Highway 200 with the west and east boundaries being Missoula and Lewis and Clark County.
Sprague fire: All residents and visitors from the south end of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass. This includes the Lake McDonald Lodge, concession housing, Kelly Camp Area, and the Avalanche and Sprague Creek campgrounds. Logan Pass is still accessible from the east side of the park. Glacier Park Boat Company tours and Swan Mountain Outfitters horseback rides from the Lake McDonald lodge are canceled. Structure protection continued Sunday for the Lake McDonald Lodge.
West Fork fire: Residents in the 17 Mile Community Area of Pipe Creek Road. Pipe Creek Road is now closed from the 12 Mile Marker to the summit.