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SUPERIOR – A thick pall of smoke lifted over Superior and the Interstate 90 corridor Friday as the West Mullan fire continued its run, and residents looking to return to their homes and businesses grew restless.

Now it its fifth day, the fire grew to 4,550 acres in 91-degree temperatures. Winds gusted to 15 miles per hour and humidity hovered at a twig-snapping 12 percent.

Despite the conditions, crews defended Superior from the fire into Friday morning, allowing authorities to partially lift evacuation orders at 5 p.m., including areas of Flat Creek Road within the city limits.

West Mullan Road also opened to the public east of Sunflower Lane. West of Sunflower Lane, however, it was opened to residents only. All other areas affected by earlier evacuation orders remained closed, and Mineral County issued a “repopulation agreement” for residents looking to return home.

“I know it seems like it has been an awfully long time, but we want to make sure nobody gets hurt,” said fire information officer Pat McKelvey. “We’ve still got some heat we’re trying to take out up in Flat Creek. There are still some smokers up there, and a lot of rolling material is going to be coming down.”

While puffs of smoke and occasional spot fires showed above town Friday, much of the activity shifted west toward Keystone and LaVista roads, where fire crews planned to remove hazardous trees for a burnout.

To the north, a series of east-west power lines also were at risk. The fire, now at 23 percent containment, had already crossed lines on the fire’s northwest quadrant, and McKelvey said it’s likely the blaze will encroach on the lines in other areas.

“Firefighter safety is our main priority,” he said. “They haven’t de-energized the lines. They could reroute the power if they need to.”

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More than 600 personnel were assigned to the fire on Friday, pushing the fire camp in St. Regis over capacity.

The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at Superior Elementary School, where volunteers planned to accommodate firefighters starting Saturday.

“They’re scurrying for room at the fire camp,” said Red Cross liaison officer Alice Brace, standing at a desk inside the school. “We’ll be handling the crews that work at night, and they’ll come in during the day and sleep here.”

McKelvey confirmed the move, saying fire crews who work the night shift need a cool, quiet place to sleep during the day when fire activity and temperatures are at their highest.

“They have to be in a place where they can get a good night’s rest,” he said. “That’s not going to happen out there in a tent out in that field. We’re over 600 of them now. We’re kind of tight up there in camp.”

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Sherriff’s deputies from across the state also are using the elementary school to sleep. Food and showers were offered to evacuees, and local residents were invited to register with the Red Cross’ Safe and Well website.

“We’ve had lots of people register,” said Brace. “Their families can go online. They’ll know their loved ones are safe and well.”

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Across town at the Mineral County Fairgrounds, evacuee Sam King waited out the fire tending animals dropped off for care. Inside a tin shed with an air-conditioning unit, she kept company with two dogs and seven cats.

Outside, four horses and nine chickens were also sheltered. The chickens laid seven eggs the day before and King waited Friday for a load of guinea pigs. Their owner – forced from her home by the blaze – had been keeping the animals in her car with the air-conditioning running.

“A lot of people have been donating food and chips,” said King, who moved to Superior three months ago. “Instead of sleeping on cots at the Red Cross, I’ve been sleeping here with the animals.”

Flat Creek Road outside the city limits remains closed and under mandatory evacuation orders issued on Tuesday. Pardee Creek, Keystone Creek and LaVista roads remain closed and under mandatory evacuation notice.

The Clark Fork River also remains closed from the Big Eddy fishing access to the Slowey Campground – a stretch of river where helicopters are drawing water.

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

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