HELENA – A state of emergency was declared in Montana on Sunday because of several large wildfires, including one northeast of Missoula that had burned more than 28 square miles and was within a mile of homes.
Higher humidity and cloud cover were helping firefighters contain that blaze, which began Friday and rapidly grew Saturday, prompting evacuations of about 200 homes. However, there was little growth on the fire Sunday, said Pat Cross, a fire information officer.
“The fire didn’t do much today in terms of moving,” Cross said. “We had a very good day.”
Authorities determined that one home had been destroyed in the fire and another damaged. Cross said it was not known whether they were primary or vacation homes. One commercial building was damaged, along with seven outbuildings and other structures, Cross said.
The wind was largely blowing the blaze back onto itself Sunday after a change in direction. Weather was expected to be favorable for firefighters today. Windblown embers were still sparking spot fires up to two miles ahead of the main blaze near the popular getaway spots of Seeley and Placid Lakes, authorities said.
Cross estimated containment at zero percent, “only because there isn’t a lower number.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared the state of emergency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal money to help fight the blaze. FEMA will pay 75 percent of eligible state firefighting costs, such as the fire camp, equipment and supplies, agency officials in Denver said. The money does not cover damage to homes or other buildings.
In northwestern Montana, about 50 homes ahead of a fire in the Flathead National Forest remained evacuated, and crews had to move their fire camp after the blaze burned to within two miles. Residents of the Good Creek area to the north may also be evacuated if the fire continues to grow, officials said.
The Brush Creek fire, sparked by lightning about 26 miles west of Whitefish, grew to nearly 16,000 acres, or 25 square miles, as of Sunday.
North of Thompson Falls, an inversion limited growth of the Chippy Creek fire, which had burned an estimated 36,140 acres, or 56 square miles, in the Lolo National Forest and surrounding areas, said Bob Dyson, fire information officer. All state, federal and Plum Creek roads between U.S. 2 and the Little Thompson River were closed.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for areas near several other wildfires, including a blaze south of Glacier National Park that burned 9,000 acres in one day for a total of nearly 30,500 acres, or more than 47 square miles.
The Skyland fire destroyed two ranch sheds and killed several cattle in its path Saturday. Continued wind was expected to keep pushing the blaze to the south and possibly the north, said Dale Warriner, fire information officer.
In north-central Idaho, wind-whipped flames jumped a fire line and two other fires merged as firefighters on Sunday prepared for the Zena/Loon fire to reach the tiny mountain town of Warren.
“You can’t really put crews on the ground in front of a fire that’s being driven like this,” said Rudy Evenson, fire information officer for the East Zone Complex, of which the Zena/Loon is a part.
“There’s a pretty high likelihood that it will arrive down around Warren within the next 48 hours,” he said Sunday evening.
The Zena and Loon fires merged late Saturday and are being driven northeast, as are the Horton and North Fork fires that are also part of the complex, by winds gusting up to 20 mph. Evenson said the winds kicked up Sunday afternoon and pushed the flames through the rugged timber area. The lightning-caused East Zone Complex, burning about 25 miles northeast of McCall, is about 78 square miles and was 15 percent contained. It has destroyed one outbuilding.
Evenson said 97 structures are being protected, including wood bridges, but didn’t know how many of the structures are residences. He said no evacuations have been ordered for the town.
The East Zone Complex is also threatening 388 structures in the community of Secesh about 30 miles to the southwest of Warren, Evenson said. Crews are also doing protection work there.
Management of the Horton Fire, burning 15 miles north of McCall and which jumped a fire line Saturday in the Payette National Forest, has been added to the East Zone Complex that is being managed by a federal team.
A wildfire that quickly spread from the burning wreckage of a helicopter was holding steady Sunday, as cooler, more humid weather aided firefighting efforts in the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range.
Crews were working to establish and improve fire lines around the 405-acre Easton Ridge fire, which was about 10 percent contained, fire officials said Sunday afternoon.
A private helicopter crashed near Easton on Thursday, killing all four on board and sparking the fire in steep, rugged terrain about 60 miles east-southeast of Seattle.
South of Easton, the Crow Creek fire was holding steady at roughly 83 acres and was about 60 percent contained, fire officials said Sunday.
Crews focused on a 20-acre area near the Naches River on Sunday, torching piles of downed branches and other forest fuels. “They’re going to continue to mop up in there … over the next couple days,” fire information officer Cindy Bork said.
The cause of the Crow Creek fire, which started Thursday, remained under investigation.
Meanwhile, firefighters slowed the growth of the Tolo fire, burning northwest of Stehekin in North Cascades National Park. The lightning-caused fire started in mid-July and was about 35 percent contained at roughly 225 acres.
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