Seeley Lake businesses, schools and residents got long-awaited good news early Tuesday evening — a mandatory evacuation order for roughly 429 homes was downgraded to an evacuation warning.
Residents were evacuated eight days earlier, on Aug. 28, as the Rice Ridge fire lapped on the northern outskirts of town.
Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott said the welcome change applied to everything east of Highway 83 from Cedar Street on the north end of town to Whitetail Drive to the south. The zone includes Seeley-Swan High School and Seeley Lake Elementary.
The announcement came on the day the high school finally got back in session after a week of fire and smoke-stopping classes, but not at the high school itself.
Buses hauled students from the Seeley and Swan Lake areas to the Paws Up Resort in Greenough, which offered an administrative building for the school’s use. Paws Up staff served lunch for students and staff as the strange school year kicked off.
“The decision to move back into the school will be based on multiple factors,” Missoula County Public Schools spokesperson Hatton Littman said in a text Tuesday night. “We are not prepared to make comments on moving back to the school tonight.”
Principal Chris Stout said Seeley Lake Elementary School will stick with a plan to open classes next Monday “to give everybody time to get back.”
The K-8 school was scheduled to start Tuesday, but three teacher training days were curtailed by the evacuation. Stout said the town’s off-the-charts smoke issues remain a concern.
“Not that I think it’s going to be any better (by Monday), but it’s probably another reason to keep it closed,” Stout said.
Containment efforts on the Rice Ridge fire continue to be on the west end closest to Seeley Lake, though its most significant growth has been to the north into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and to the east. Residents of Coopers Lake, miles east of Seeley Lake, were ordered evacuated on Sunday.
An assessment of abnormal growth in the Monture Creek area Sunday through Monday morning showed the fire increased from 55,000 acres to 108,126 acres from Sunday into early Monday. Western Montana’s largest fire went into last weekend at around 40,000 acres.
Tuesday morning marked the arrival of Greg Poncin’s Northern Rockies Type I team. Due to diminishing firefighting resources around the nation, Poncin’s team will also oversee the 21,400-acre Liberty Fire across in the Mission Mountains.
The fire overtook the Reef fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on Monday and may be headed for the Monahan fire. The wilderness fires are being managed “for resource benefit including allowing the fire(s) to play (their) natural ecological role with consideration for public and firefighter safety and point protection of historic resources and trail infrastructure,” according to InciWeb, the national wildfire information service.
The largest fire in the Bitterroot Valley made some significant flares over the weekend, but by Monday the Lolo Peak fire was fairly quiet and all evacuation orders were rescinded by Tuesday, according to Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Lolo Peak fire was 45,012 acres. During the weekend, torching trees caused spot fires on the western edge that grew to 300 acres outside of the primary containment line, bringing with it the potential to move toward Highway 12. The fire also moved to about three miles to the east in the North Fork of Sweeney Creek.
Fire managers expect that it will eventually move into the old Kootenai Creek burn west of Stevensville, and that they’ll be able to hold it there.
A second large fire and more road closures have prolonged late-summer miseries in Glacier National Park (see related story).
The Adair Peak fire started on Aug. 12, two days after the more infamous Sprague fire that claimed Sperry Chalet last week and is threatening Lake McDonald Lodge. Adair, burning south of Logging Lake, was relatively quiet until the weekend.
It was estimated Tuesday to be 1,330 acres and had forced closure of some 25 miles of the Inside North Fork road, from the Polebridge Ranger Station south to Camas Creek. Two campgrounds are closed: Logging Creek and Quartz Creek.
There are historic backcountry cabins near Logging Lake and a historic ranger station near the Logging Creek trailhead that are undergoing structure protection.
Lake McDonald Lodge is evacuated, emptied of valuable items, and surrounded by hose line and sprinklers as the Sprague fire threatens. Half of Going-to-the-Sun road, from Lake McDonald to the top of Logan Pass, is closed.
After Monday’s winds, Tuesday was calmer in the park and the forecast should hold for a few days, said fire information officer Diane Sine.
“They’re both active, so there will continue to be some movement … but nothing dramatic,” said Sine.
Weyerhaeuser lands: With more of the same dry, hot and sometimes windy conditions in the foreseeable future, Weyerhaeuser Co. announced Tuesday that almost all its lands in western Montana are closed.
The giant Washington-based company moved into Montana in 2016 and absorbed some 880,000 acres of former Plum Creek land. It banned campfires in July and is now prohibiting all public access until the extreme fire danger eases, according to Tom Ray, Weyerhaeuser’s Montana resource team leader.
Tuesday’s announcement was made through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1 news.
According to the press release, the closure is in effect on all lands in Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Missoula, Sanders and Ravalli counties. Granite, Mineral and Powell counties were not on the list.
Air quality levels in most areas around Missoula were somewhat better Tuesday than on Labor Day. But Sarah Coefield of the Missoula City-County Health Department doesn’t expect it to be a trend.
“Conditions are likely to continue deteriorating this evening as local smoke becomes trapped near the valley floor and overhead Pacific Northwest smoke mixes down,” she wrote at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
The smoke season has been so bad that it’s gumming up the air monitors, Coefield said.
“We’ve been repeatedly losing touch with the Missoula monitor, and the Florence monitor is being taken off-line for the time being because its little brain is fried,” Coefield wrote. “The Missoula monitor should be back up and running soon (hopefully tonight), and it sounds like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is making the rounds throughout western Montana to give all the state-owned monitors a bit of extra love.”