HELENA – Gusty winds drove fires through dry and brittle forests and grasslands across Montana on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of tourists and campers from the most visited area of Glacier National Park during a busy holiday weekend.
A fire that burned a century-old backcountry chalet in Glacier last week was threatening the Lake McDonald area, just up the road from where more than 40 percent of all visitors enter the park.
The area being evacuated is home to Glacier’s most-visited trails and one of the park’s grand Swiss chalet-style lodges, Lake McDonald Lodge. It is also the starting point for tours over the dizzying Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that bisects the park over the Continental Divide.
Fire crews removed valuables from Lake McDonald Lodge, which closed early for the season last week due to heavy smoke, and laid sprinklers, hoses and pumps as they tried to stave off the loss of another park icon.
Last week, the same fire burned the Sperry Chalet, which was one of two backcountry chalets built for visitors who traveled the park by horse before the roads were built.
Two campgrounds are being evacuated along with 55 residences near the lake, land inholdings that are privately owned from before the park was established in 1910.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was blocked below the lake and park rangers were sweeping the trails for backcountry hikers and campers, said fire spokeswoman Diane Sine.
Glacier is having a record-setting year for tourism, and visitation had been expected to spike for the holiday weekend. It was unclear just how many people were in the Lake McDonald area on Sunday.
“The fact that Lake McDonald Lodge was already empty makes it significantly fewer people than it would have been,” Sine said.
Park officials decided to evacuate the area from the south end of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass, where the Going-to-the-Sun Road reaches its highest point, after fire crews warned that wind blowing from the east could drive the 8-square-mile fire down the mountainside on Sunday.
Of the 1.8 million people who visited the park this year through July, 808,000 of them entered through the park’s western entrance that leads to the Lake McDonald area.
That entrance remained open Sunday, but visitors could only reach the nearby Apgar Village before entering the evacuation zone.
Park officials plan to clear the area by Sunday evening, and there is no telling how long the evacuation will last.
Across Montana, wind is fanning more than two dozen large wildfires burning in tinderbox conditions, with more than 90 percent of Montana in drought. Red-flag warnings were issued again on Sunday, with more wind, high temperatures and low humidity forecast.
Forty-seven mph wind gusts drove a fire burning northeast of Lincoln in central Montana toward a state highway on Saturday night and led Lewis and Clark County sheriff’s officials to order the evacuation of about eight homes. The 18-square-mile fire burning 14 miles northeast of Lincoln.
In western Montana, Granite County authorities ordered residents of about 35 homes near Upper Rock Creek Road to evacuate on Saturday night. Those homes are threatened by a complex of fires burning 25 miles east of Missoula.
In northwestern Montana, Lincoln County authorities issued an evacuation order for people living in the Dodge Creek, Spring Creek and West Kootenai areas. It was not immediately clear how many homes were affected by the order for the fire burning 18 miles northwest of Eureka.
Evacuation orders remain in effect for more than 1,000 homes and businesses in the western Montana town of Seeley Lake, along with a smaller number of residents threatened by fires outside of Havre, Philipsburg and Thompson Falls.
The two-dozen fires now burning in Montana have so far cost $192 million and destroyed a combined 25 homes and other structures, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
It’s been the worst fire season in Montana since 2012, with more than 1,273 square miles burned this year as of Sunday.