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SUPERIOR – The West Mullan fire crept toward Superior in a wave of flame and black smoke on Thursday, putting fire crews on defense as they made a stand to save the town’s northern edge.

A stubborn branch of the 4,150-acre fire reached the doorstep of several north-side homes and threatened a cluster of businesses, including two local bars and a bank, along with an auto parts store and a lumber yard.

“It’s starting to roll,” said fire information officer Pat McKelvey. “We’re getting spots. It’s going to get Western out here this afternoon.”

The fire’s persistent growth on the Lolo National Forest prompted new evacuation orders Thursday at Keystone and LaVista roads west of town. All of Superior north of the Clark Fork River was shuttered, as evacuation orders issued Wednesday remained in effect. The river itself was closed from the Big Eddy fishing access to the Slowey Campground.

The skies over town lit up with a parade of helicopters and black smoke throughout the day. The fire torched trees and sent up twisting columns of flame. Residents who evacuated Wednesday evening sat by on Thursday watching the fire’s progress, hoping crews could save their homes.

“This is our retirement,” said evacuee Michelle Dahinden. “They gave us a couple minutes to get out and said they’d do all they can.”

Dahinden held her gray poodle, Chipshot, and watched the fire burn, noting the location of the advancing flames and the home she bought with her husband in 1972.

The couple grabbed some photographs and documents before leaving shortly after 5 p.m. on Wednesday. They spent the night at the Super 8 Motel and were looking for a room for another night on Thursday.

“We’ll play it night by night,” Dahinden said.

The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Superior Elementary School, and the Mineral County Fairgrounds was accepting animals from evacuees. Resources brought in from across Montana and Idaho to battle the fire soared, reaching 479 personnel and seven aircraft, including a slurry bomber based in Missoula.

Fire crews had prepared to make a stand on Wednesday, and on Thursday they put their plan to action. Five-inch hoses fed water up and down West Mullan Road, and crews manning brush trucks hit the fire as it pushed down the mountain.

“The line is in and it’s plum,” McKelvey said. “We’re bringing in water, not just from tenders, but out of hydrants. We’re tied into this kind of set up so we can push that water.”

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Allen Cox, a lieutenant with the Montana City Volunteer Fire Department, stood on the fire’s southern flank where crews staffed the water lines and waited for the approaching flames. Firefighters stood in pairs behind several homes, looking for new starts at the base of the mountain.

“They’ve been getting rolling, flaming logs that have been going 500 feet to 1,000 feet down the slopes to the west,” Cox said. “We anticipate that’s likely here.”

The prediction came true by midafternoon when the fire hooked around the slope and slipped toward the homes. Embers tumbled downhill sparking new spot fires. Helicopters shifted their water drops to slow the fire’s spread above town.

“We’ll stay in the area if we get any rolling or spotting off the ridge,” Cox said. “We’ll monitor for those and perform initial attack. We’re getting a little more wind.”

The air support drew a crowd to the Clark Fork River, where a parade of helicopters lined up for water. Porch parties offered front-row seats of the action and residents hung hammocks in the shade to watch.

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Jackie’s Home Cooking restaurant opened its doors, hoping to cater to the growing crowd.

“My business has increased 25 percent,” said Mike Perotti, who owns the restaurant with his wife. “Everyone was coming down because they were dipping helicopters right down there.”

Businesses across the river weren’t as lucky. The Hilltop Motel, Cenex, Lakeland Feed, Wells Fargo and the Superior Color and Lumber, among others, were closed under evacuation orders.

“The Four Aces Bar was shut down around 9:30 last night,” said Deana Leonard. “This is a big revenue week for the bars – it’s the softball tournament.”

NAPA Auto Parts was also closed, giving Keith Leonard a day off.

“We worked till 5 last night,” he said. “This morning they said we couldn’t open.”

McKelvey summarized Thursday’s efforts as a victory for Superior. Crews planned on cooling hotspots above town throughout the night. The fire, which sparked on Sunday, remains under investigation.

“The night shift must keep improving on what the day shift has done here,” McKelvey said. “We still got a big fire going the other direction.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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