HELENA – A fast-moving wildfire in Glacier National Park torched a car and a historic cabin and forced tourists to abandon their vehicles on the park’s most popular roadway while officials evacuated hotels, campgrounds and homes.
Visitors left their vehicles along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and were shuttled out by officials Tuesday, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said. The two-lane road that carries thousands of vehicles on peak days in July and August was shut down for 21 of its 50 miles.
One family from Missouri nearly found themselves trapped when they briefly stopped on the road to take video of the fire.
“It was smoldering and smoking just like a normal fire,” Lakota Duncan told the Associated Press. “As soon as we started driving, it just exploded. That’s the best I can say.”
Duncan’s father began driving at high speed as the flames drew closer, while Duncan yelled, “Go, Dad, Go,” from the back seat and continued to record as they made their escape.
Park officials were helping tourists retrieve their cars Wednesday, while rangers searched the backcountry for any remaining hikers after the blaze doubled in size overnight to more than 3 square miles.
By Wednesday evening, the fire had burned more than 6 square miles. It also destroyed the Baring Creek Cabin, a historic backcountry structure.
Officials also were evacuating the small St. Mary community at the park’s eastern entrance and homes along a lakeshore.
“We’re kind of in the direct line right now,” said Susan Brooke, who owns the St. Mary Glacier Park KOA, where more than 600 people fled Wednesday afternoon. “It’s raging down the ridge toward St. Mary.”
Wind gusts and low humidity were expected to move through drought-parched northwestern Montana, increasing the risk of the fire spreading even more quickly, and park officials were preparing for more evacuations.
“These conditions may create explosive fire growth potential,” Germann said in a statement.
That dangerous fire weather extended to Washington state, which is also struggling with drought. About 600 firefighters on the ground and in the air attacked a wildfire that has burned one home and nearly 6 square miles in the southeastern part of the state. It was likely human-caused, officials said.
In Glacier National Park, officials evacuated the 72-room Rising Sun Motor Inn and a nearby campground with 84 spots. They also evacuated the 148-site St. Mary campground, one of the largest in the park.
Glacier Park Lodges general manager Marc Ducharme told the Hungry Horse News that about 150 guests and 60 employees were evacuated from the hotel. The guests were given refunds and a list of area hotels, while the employees were set up in tents at a campground in Coram.
Peak tourist season is underway, and 95 percent of park visitors travel some length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park and hugs the mountainsides to cross the Continental Divide.
Officials on Wednesday also began evacuating the small community of St. Mary and homes surrounding St. Mary Lake as a precaution. A Glacier County sheriff’s dispatcher said she did not know how many people were included in the evacuation order.
Greg Fullerton, who owns Glacier County Honey Co., said he has been watching the fire from a highway above St. Mary since Tuesday night. The fire has spread east along the lake, and burning trees were visible from his vantage point.
“In some locations, it’s burning on the shore, in other locations it’s two-thirds up the mountain,” he said.
The National Weather Service warned that wind gusts combined with low humidity in the park and the rest of northwestern Montana created extreme conditions for wildfires Wednesday afternoon.
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