Highway closed, evacuations ordered, wilderness areas closed near Montana wildfires



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HELENA, Montana — An advancing wildfire led to the evacuation about 100 residents Thursday from their homes on the southern boundary of Montana's Glacier National Park and forced the closure of a main highway.

The 1.7-square-mile fire burning near Essex reached a point that triggered a mandatory evacuation of around 100 residents and the Izaak Walton Inn, fire information officer Sonja Hartmann said.

Flathead County sheriff's deputies started going door to door Thursday afternoon notifying residents to leave, county spokeswoman Jennifer Rankosky said. The residents had been on a pre-evacuation warning since Aug. 19, when they were asked to be packed and ready to leave.

"We want to make sure we're taking people out of there before it's an emergency," Hartmann said.

The Red Cross set up a shelter at the West Glacier elementary school. A structural protection team was standing by in Essex in case the fire moves closer, Rankosky said.

Later Thursday, authorities closed down an 8-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2 near the community as a precaution. The highway had been open to traffic guided by pilot cars through the fire area.

Meanwhile, south of Tarkio — a town on Interstate 90 west of Missoula — outfitters and cabin owners were evacuated due to the threat of an estimated 4-square-mile fire that blew up Wednesday night. Lolo National Forest fire spokesman Boyd Hartwig says the fire had burned to within about three miles of the Clearwater Crossing trailhead.

"Last night we could see big, glowing white smoke coming from Fish Creek and the Hole-in-the-Wall area," Tarkio resident Jackie Robb told the Missoulian on Thursday. "There are houses and cabins all the way down the creek. It really blew up last night."

Hartwig said firefighters were setting up protection for several ranch buildings and other structures in the area that is a popular entry to the Great Burn proposed wilderness area between Lookout and Lolo passes.

The state's largest fire — which has burned nearly 45 square miles in the Flathead National Forest about 55 miles south of Hungry Horse — has prompted forest officials to close sections of the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness areas in the Spotted Bear Ranger District. Forest personnel will continue to evaluate conditions to determine when it is safe to reopen the wilderness.

A smoky haze remained over much of the western half of the state. The air quality was considered very unhealthy in northwestern and southwestern Montana, and unhealthy as far east as Malta and Lewistown.

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