SEELEY LAKE — The smoke poured from a distant ridgeline, the daytime air quality was downgraded to hazardous, the waters were closed and it was Tuesday in Seeley Lake.
Several foursomes strolled the Double Arrow golf course, Rovero’s jumped with activity all day and, at least in the morning, kids swam in the lake.
Meanwhile, three miles northeast of town, the Rice Ridge fire doubled in size, to an estimated 4,000 acres. All around western Montana, the wildfire scene took another turn for the worse Tuesday as smoke blanketed most of the valleys and mandatory evacuation orders were issued in Granite County on two different complexes. Residents along Lolo Creek and Highway 83 north of Seeley Lake in Missoula County were put on watch.
At Seeley, ridgelines quickly faded and disappeared into the haze of the lower third of the sky. A handful of Hotshots walked through wooded stands overlooking cabins and outbuildings, laying hose, setting up sprinklers, felling trees, clearing brush. Their once-yellow shirts stained with the forest were a permanent darker brown, something like charred Dijon mustard rubbed in dirt.
On Morrell Creek Road, Lisa VanDeHey led the way up the wood stairs to a cabin her father built on leased Forest Service land back in the 1950s. Stuck to a little metal pole near the road was a pre-evacuation notice.
Long lines of white hose weaved across the property, metal Y-connectors enabling thin strands to slither off into corners, next to sheds and outbuildings.
Sprinklers aimed at the structures; mostly the house, but one sat right outside the outhouse door, much to VanDeHey’s amusement.
“Gotta save the outhouse,” she laughed.
VanDeHey and her husband, D.C. Haas, drove down from Kalispell Tuesday morning to gather up certain items from the cabin — mostly family photos — turn off the propane tanks, and “cross our fingers.”
They came up in time to welcome a Hotshot crew laying hose and bulldozing a wide fuel break about 100 feet from the cabin. The chopped scar ran in an arc around their neighbors' places.
“I’ve got two teenaged kids at home and they’re crying that the cabin’s going to burn down,” VanDeHey said. “It’s not the structure, it’s the memories.”
Haas chimed in from the porch.
“I think they’ve got a heckuva plan in place," he said. "I’m feeling very optimistic.”
“Yeah, if they can’t keep it with all these hoses…” VanDeHey trailed off.
Though it was allowed, the two were hesitant to spend the night, as were their neighbors, Tim and Cindy Hoag.
“We’ll stay downtown tonight,” Tim Hoag said as he packed a horse trailer with belongings. “The wind could switch on us and I wouldn’t sleep good, anyways.”
The Hoags had been up at their cabin all summer, from their yearlong home in Florida. Other neighbors, a couple from Delaware, cut their vacation short Tuesday in the face of the wall of smoke visible from the yard.
Tim Hoag said the trailer, filled with mounts, golf clubs, a lawn mower, a ladder and other items from his shed and shop, would stay at a friend’s house for the foreseeable future.
“I just hope I have to haul it all back,” he said, swinging shut the metal door.
To the west, across the lake at River Point Campground, just hours before it was closed to the public so air crews could dip from the lake, the smoke churning in the mountains opposite the water gave the impression of an especially apocalyptic beach day.
Back in town, the Incident Command Post set up in Seeley Lake Elementary School saw a steady stream of locals walking in to pore over the oversize maps set up in the gymnasium and put their questions to public information officer Gabrielle Kenton.
Evacuation warnings were centered toward the south of the Rice Ridge fire, which is burning parallel to Highway 83. They were handed out in door-to-door patrols by sheriff’s deputies; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks rangers and the Forest Service.
“Wind shifts, anything can happen,” Kenton said in her classroom-turned-office, where a sleeping bag on a small air pad lay next to her desk. “You never know. Fire is relatively unpredictable.”
Kenton thought it unlikely Seeley proper would be threatened as the fire was burning to the east, but a northeasterly wind was expected Tuesday night.
A Type II incident command team will take over the fire in a day or so, bringing even more personnel and equipment to the small lakeside town.
“It’s really touch-and-go sometimes,” Kenton said.
The evacuation warnings and orders came as a red-flag warning for Tuesday evening and the first three hours of Wednesday kept fire crews throughout the region on edge. Three neighborhoods ringing the Sunrise fire in Mineral County are already deserted as the top priority fire in the nation flamed aggressively to the north and east.
Sapphire Complex: Residents in a 10-mile stretch of Rock Creek from Hogback Homestead south to the Kyle Borhnsen Memorial Bridge west of Philipsburg were ordered to leave early Tuesday evening by the Granite County Sheriff’s Office.
The “red” mandatory evacuation order came in conjunction with a “yellow” evacuation warning for those from the Hogback Homestead, a historic Forest Service rental cabin, to Butte Cabin Creek, another 11 miles downstream.
The Little Hogback fire is the southernmost of three fires in the Sapphire Complex to the east of Rock Creek. As of Tuesday morning it had burned 5,300 acres and was listed at zero percent contained. The fire has been making its way toward Rock Creek Road, information officer Sara Rouse said shortly after 5 p.m.
“It was fairly active this afternoon, and they’re thinking it’s going to get close to the road probably by this evening,” Rouse said. “With operations needing to take place, they want to make sure people have time to leave.”
The threat came on the heels of another mandatory evacuation order earlier in the day by Granite County farther upstream for Moose Lake area residents. The Whetstone Ride and Myers fires are burning out of control 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg near the South Fork of Rock Creek. The lightning-caused fires have burned some 3,700 acres.
It also spurred into motion the largest contingents of firefighters on a fire in Montana. Personnel on the Sapphire Complex number 555, including 14 ground crews of 20 people each. They’re tapping the services of 23 engines and six helicopters for a fire that had steady growth during the day and was expected to surpass a combined 1,200 acres in size on the Goat Creek, Sliderock and Little Hogback fires. That was some 7,000 acres larger than a week ago.
Back burns have been performed along the east side of Rock Creek Road to prevent the northernmost Goat Creek fire from burning down to the road.
Crews have reached a burnt-out area of the Sliderock fire to better assess the loss of structures.
“One cabin and nine outbuildings associated with the cabin (were lost). They’re all on one property,” information officer Erin O’Connor said, adding “This happened at the very beginning.”
They are the only 10 structures reported lost among all the fires burning in western Montana.
The Sliderock and Little Hogback fires were reported on July 13. Goat Creek flared up six days later. Rock Creek Road remains closed to all but residents and fire personnel.
“The troops have done a really, really good job with structure protection and keeping it away from homes,” O’Connor said.
Whetstone Ridge-Myers Complex: The lightning-caused fires have burned some 3,700 acres. Smoke from the lightning-caused fires has affected Butte and is expected to continue to do so all week, according to the Montana Standard.
The fires had already forced the closure of nearby Copper Creek campground. A Type II team under Mike Alma took command Tuesday. The previous team’s structure group had triaged or prepared 82 structures nearest the fire. A fire break of more than 20 miles has been constructed or designated, with more to come. It includes 1.5 miles of hand line, 6 miles of dozer line and 13 miles of shaded fuel break.
Lolo Peak fire: The confounding fire burning in largely inaccessible terrain high above Highway 12 established itself on the north face of Lantern Ridge. That was a trigger point for the Missoula County Sheriff’s deputies to starting going door to door to warn some 70 residences on the south side of Highway 12 to be prepared to move out quickly.
The warning applied to those in a 5 ½-mile stretch from Fort Fizzle west to Elk Meadows Road.
“They’ve been trying for days to keep the fire on the south side of Lantern Ridge and it finally slopped over to the north side. It’s about 50 acres and growing,” said fire information officer Mark Struble. “The fire operations people came in about four hours ago (2 p.m.) and got together with the sheriff’s office. They’re concerned with the red flag and higher winds and said let’s just give everyone down in the canyon a heads-up.”
There was no immediate danger, Struble stressed.
Rice Ridge and Liberty fires: Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott issued yellow evacuation warnings to residents along Highway 83 from just north of the town of Seeley Lake at Cottonwood Lakes Road to Rice Ridge Road, above which the Rice Ridge fire was growing rapidly to the southeast.
More warnings were issued for North and South Placid Lake roads, Shining Shirt Road, and Beaver Creek Road in advance of the approach of the Liberty fire that burned east off the Flathead Indian Reservation in the Mission Mountain range over the weekend. It's charging down Boles Creek, one of the tributaries to Placid Lake.
Sunrise/Burdette fires: Travelers on Interstate 90 and residents of Superior to the north and Alberton to the east experienced periods of thick smoke and poor visibility Tuesday morning. After an afternoon respite, smoky conditions were expected to return in the evening as the red flag warning went into effect. Air quality monitors have been placed in Superior and Quartz Creek.
Another public meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Lozeau Lodge Pavilion.
The fires remain No. 1 and No. 2 on the national priority list. The Sunrise fire had ballooned more than 3,000 acres to 9,900 in two days. It was burning aggressively Tuesday on either side of Sunrise Mountain in the Quartz Creek and Sunrise Creek drainages. Fire growth to the north, east and south threatened structures in Quartz Creek, where residents were evacuated on Friday, and Sunrise, where residents have been out of their homes for a week.
Some 60 structures are at risk, but none has been lost.