HAMILTON – More than 400 homes remain under a Stage 2 evacuation notice because of the Sawtooth fire west of Hamilton, which was estimated at about 4,000 acres on Tuesday.

The fire was very active Monday night, casting an eerie orange hue over the Bitterroot Valley floor. The blaze spread mainly east and north, running into contingency lines built by firefighters in several locations.

“Everything was held in place, and again no structures were lost through the night,” said fire information officer Gregg DeNitto. “Observers calling the fire information phone reported surprise at what they could see after the smoke lifted and darkness fell.”

Infrared mapping conducted overnight increased the amount of acreage burned to nearly 4,000 acres. The fire is now about three miles west of town between Sawtooth and Canyon creeks and on the upper slopes of Downing Mountain.

“It’s a firefight out there, but they’re making steady progress,” said fire information officer Pat McKelvey. “They put out one good-sized hot spot last night that was quite a good distance east of the main fire. I was out there today, and it blackened a big area. It would have been pretty serious if they hadn’t gotten to it right away.”

The lightning-caused fire, which started on about Aug. 30, is only 5 percent contained. A total of 244 personnel, including 100 firefighters and three helicopters, are fighting the blaze.

The Stage 2 evacuation notice is in effect for all residential and commercial properties west of Westside Road, south of Paradise Trail and Blodgett Camp Road, and north of North Gold Creek Loop, making it the largest evacuation in at least 10 years in the Bitterroot.

The notice means evacuation is necessary, although not mandatory. The Ravalli County sheriff’s office has attempted to contact all residents within the evacuation area and a 24-hour patrol by law enforcement will protect property.

John Lehrman, the owner of Downing Mountain Lodge about halfway up the mountain, is regularly updating the public via his Facebook page about the fate of his property.

“The fire is significantly quieter today, with little crowning yet,” he wrote. “With good visibility, two choppers have been drinking water from Barley Lake and coughing in hot spots, the front line to the north, and the spring creek interior (hopefully saving the irrigation). I heard from our fire dispatch friend that the Prineville, Ore., crew is at the lodge defending it and the communication towers.

“There are still active blazes within 50 yards of both, but so far with little growth. With inversions setting up, we may have two quieter days before the next system approaches with increased winds and from the southwest. Looks like the fire is here to stay for the next week, and really until we get a season-ending rain or snow event.”

The Ravalli County Red Cross disaster team remains set up at the First Baptist Church south of Hamilton. On Monday, the shelter had three residents stay overnight in addition to several who were there for breakfast and came for lunch on Tuesday.

“Several families have come in to get out of the smoke,” said Dallas Erickson, disaster chair for Ravalli County. “There have been a lot of people stepping up, it is really heartwarming.”

He said that several people have donated items, including their time, at the shelter, and that one volunteer paid for breakfast out of his own pocket.

The Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, headed by incident commander Tom Heintz, held a public meeting on Tuesday night at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center to answer any questions about the fire.

Fire crews are planning to continue work on contingency lines, supported by air resources, throughout the day on Wednesday, and firefighters will look for opportunities to tie in the lines with an old burn from the Downing Mountain fire of 2010, which also burned parts of the mountain.

DeNitto warned Hamilton area residents to watch for flying embers from the fire.

“We are experiencing lots of ash and embers falling over the area,” he said. “The probability of ignition is about 50 percent, depending on the weather. That means 50 out of 100 hot embers that find a receptive ignition bed can start a new fire. Please be watchful for new fire starts.”

The fire information line for the Sawtooth fire is 363-3556 or more information can be found at http://www.inciweb.org/incident/3227/.

Reporter Julia Cummings contributed to this story.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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