PLAINS — Several dozen homes in western Montana remained under evacuation orders Wednesday as the potential season-ending rain approached from the west.
The most recent mandatory evacuation came in Sanders County at the Sheep Gap fire, between Plains and Thompson Falls, in the Highway 200 Complex. On Tuesday night, 24 homes on Swamp Creek Road from Four Corners to the intersection of East and West Fork of Swamp Creek were ordered abandoned.
And on Wednesday, an evacuation warning was issued for the Apgar area in Glacier National Park because of the Sprague fire.
Approaching rain or not, firefighters and managers kept shoulders to the grindstone Wednesday. As expected, winds picked up in the afternoon in the midst of a Red Flag Warning.
Near Plains, helicopters, single- and double-engine planes and a DC-10 retardant tanker tried to slow the Sheep Gap fire's growth and stop it from burning homes in the area.
When the fire first flared up a few weeks ago, Sanders County Sheriff Tom Rummel said the flames were so high up on the mountain ridge where the fire first started “that it looked like military put a load of napalm on top of the ridge.”
The flames were calmer Wednesday, but single trees still looked like fireworks torching in the distance as their light cut through the heavy, drifting smoke.
Jim Stokes and Bill Dorn were two residents who had been under evacuation orders. Stokes never left his place, while Dorn said he got the last motel room in town.
Stokes was sleeping on a cot in his field as the evacuation order went out. He rode the fire out, but said it was a little dicey.
Stokes was grateful for what the firefighters had done. “Crew 2 from Prescott, Arizona, saved all my buildings,” Stokes said. “I’m totally grateful to all of them. They’ve been so short-handed but the way they’ve controlled the fire is outstanding.”
Sheep Gap has been burning heavily over the past few weeks and Dorn said it previously “was a black plume, it looked like an atomic bomb went off.”
The Sheep Gap fire was at 13,400 acres Tuesday, but since the infrared camera that the incident management team uses to conduct fire-gauging flights was broken, no new estimate was available Wednesday.
The evacuation warning Wednesday for those in Glacier's Apgar area followed a mandatory evacuation of area residents and park visitors on Sept. 3. It extends from the south end of Lake McDonald north to Logan Pass.
Flathead sheriff’s deputies and Glacier Park law enforcement went door to door with the evacuation warning starting at about noon.
Sue Exline, a fire information officer on the Sprague fire, said the forecast called for 15 to 20 mph northeasterly winds just after sunset Wednesday, which could drive the fire in the direction of those two communities.
“It’s less wind than what we had in early September when the fire made its last large run, but we would rather be on the safe side,” Exline said.
The fire is currently burning about a half-mile away from Lake McDonald Lodge. A sprinkler system has been wetting down that area for several days now to protect the historic structure.
Apgar and West Glacier are about 3 to 4 miles from the fire.
The approaching storm system isn’t expected to bring much relief in the form of rain to the Sprague fire.
The forecast is calling for most of the precipitation from this week’s storm to fall farther south and to the east of the Continental Divide, with only a few tenths of an inch expected to drop on the fire, Exline said. A second storm next week is expected to bring more rain to the area.
Early Wednesday, Exline said winds were blowing out the west and southwest and the fire was creeping around the forest floor with some torching.
“It’s the same that we’ve seen over the last three or four days,” she said. “There hasn’t been any fast-moving fire at all. … If the winds shift, that could change.”
The Sprague fire is currently at 14,795 acres.
Approximately 56 structures, not all of them homes, are still evacuated due to the troublesome Little Hogback fire on Upper Rock Creek, part of the Sapphire Complex in Granite County. The area starts at and includes Wild Rose Loop south of Stony Creek.
Farther upstream in Granite County, the Frog Pond and Moose Lake areas are still under evacuation orders at the Meyers fire.
Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for residents just east of Rogers Pass, on both sides of the road. The order by the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office includes the Elk Meadows/Evergreen subdivisions.
In Powell County, the proximity of the Rice Ridge fire forced those in the Monture Guard Station Cabin area on the south side and the Coopers Lake area on the east end to flee.
Crews on the Rice Ridge fire battled the conditions on the fourth and, they hoped, final day of burnout operations to keep the south edge of the fire away from a forest road west of Monture Cabin. The Cottonwood Lakes Road runs from the cabin to Seeley Lake.
As of 2:30 p.m., aerial ignition was progressing slowly and stopping between strips of “ping pong balls” to keep fire intensity lower due to wind in the area. Information officer Nicole Stickney said while news of the coming rain was exciting, don’t expect outward shows of emotion on the fire lines, such as sliding in whatever mud there may be.
“I’ll tell you what, if you’ve never been on a burn, that ash is extremely slick,” Stickney quipped.
No one’s counting on the first rains to quell the Lolo Peak fire, information officer Derek Ibarguen said.
“We really want to take advantage of the rains. Our operations folks are being told a half an inch, so we’re thinking that could or could not be enough to make a dent,” Ibarguen said. “I think firefighters are trained to be cautiously optimistic. There’s a lot of humility in this and not a lot of celebrating.”