Wildfires near Townsend, Helena prompt evacuations; Glacier park road closed



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HELENA, Montana — Wildfires broke out Tuesday in central and northwestern Montana, leading to the evacuation of homes near Helena and Townsend and the closure of Glacier National Park's most popular roadway.

Drought conditions mixed with lightning passing through the area on Tuesday have increased the fire threat in western Montana.

One blaze was threatening homes about 15 miles east of Townsend near the Deep Creek Canyon as it quickly spread from 50 to 500 acres, Helena National Forest spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell said.

Wind, small trees and brush were pushing the fire, which was uncontained late Tuesday afternoon, into more heavily timbered areas, Bushnell said. It is not clear how many homes are in the rural area, but a dispatcher at the Broadwater County Sheriff's Office said evacuation alerts were sent to 45 telephone numbers.

A portion of U.S. Highway 12 was closed to traffic because of the fire, which was burning just north of the roadway, Bushnell said. Two campgrounds and a day-use area near Deep Creek also have been closed.

Fire officials don't know what caused the fire, she said. No injuries have been reported.

National Park Service officials closed the entire eastern side of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park's most heavily trafficked roadway, because of a wildfire near Grizzly Point about 6 miles east of Logan Pass.

Shortly after the fire was reported, it had grown from 2 acres to 60 to 100 acres, park officials said.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed from Logan Pass to the park's St. Mary entrance. People who had driven or hiked into the area were being shuttled out, Glacier spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

It was not immediately clear how many people were there, and Germann said she could not provide any additional details.

This is peak visitor season in the park, and about 95 percent of tourists travel at least some length of the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, according to National Park Service statistics. The 50-mile, two-lane road is the only one that bisects the park, hugging precipitous cliffs as it crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, with an elevation of 6,647 feet.

Authorities also briefly evacuated eight to 10 residents because of a wildfire that started Tuesday afternoon less than 10 miles west of Helena, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Dave Rau said.

Officials had the fire under control after a little more than an hour and allowed the residents back in. The fire was caused by lightning and was very close to another one that broke out on Monday, Rau said.

"There is only one way in and out," Rau said of Colorado Gulch Road. "So we wanted to act fast."

No injuries were reported, but one garage was damaged, he said.


AP writer Alison Noon contributed to this report.

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