SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA (AP) Residents of another 60-plus homes along the Missouri River north of here were asked to leave Thursday as a wildfire in the popular Gates of the Mountains Wilderness nearly tripled in size, prompting river and recreational closures. The lightning-sparked Meriwether fire grew from 2,200 acres to 6,018 acres, or nearly 9.5 square miles, by the afternoon. The new evacuation of some 60 homes in the Eldorado Heights and Hauser Dam areas followed an order affecting about 30 homes in the American Bar area late Wednesday. Those residents initially refused to leave, although most were evacuating Thursday afternoon, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said. The fire was less than 1 1/2 miles from the American Bar homes. Personnel at Hauser Dam, a 19-megawatt hydroelectric power plant owned by PPL Montana, also were asked to leave Thursday, fire officials said. "You have to understand fire behavior to understand why we're concerned," Liedle said. "People ask what the fire is going to do. This year, we don't know because of the extreme conditions. I'm not going to take any chances with anyone's life." The blaze, which filled the Helena area with smoke, made runs Wednesday at Sacajawea Peak and into Mann Gulch, where 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger died in 1949 after being overrun by flames. It forced the closure of the 28,000- acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the east side of the Missouri River, including the Coulter Campground. Black Sandy State Park, White Sandy Recreation Area and a seven-mile stretch of the Missouri River also were closed Thursday until further notice, officials said. A manager at the popular Gates of the Mountains boat tours said operations would be closed today but reopen on Saturday. Five engines, a structure protection specialist and a helicopter were on scene or requested, and additional resources were being diverted from other fires in the area. In a briefing with Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday morning, Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Ed Tinsley said fire managers were frustrated by the lack of cooperation with evacuations there and elsewhere. "We need people out there to understand that we don't (order evacuations) on a whim," he said. "We're doing it to protect people, to protect structures and to protect firefighters. ... When they pull the trigger and say 'Folks, it's time to evacuate,' they're serious." Jerry Meyer with the U.S. Forest Service told Schweitzer the state's fire season was running three weeks ahead of schedule in some areas, and conditions were only expected to worsen with more hot, dry weather in the forecast. "The outlook is pretty grim," Meyer said. Schweitzer stressed Montana was "still open for business" during the busy tourist season, but urged homeowners in at-risk fire areas to clear defensible space around their property and plan an escape route. "You will save your house by what you do today, not when the fire arrives," he said. In northwest Montana, crews gained ground on a wildfire that had threatened more than 20 homes southwest of Polson the day before. The 2,800-acre Garceau fire, likely sparked by lightning Tuesday morning, led at least one family to temporarily leave their home in the Irvine Flats area Tuesday, but was 50 percent contained Thursday morning and no longer threatening any homes, officials said. "They think it will be another week or so before they have that fully contained," said Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources. Helicopters and air tankers joined 120 firefighters at the scene, with 350 more personnel ordered and a highly trained "Type II" management team expected to take over Thursday, said Rich Janssen, fire information officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. The blaze had burned to within a few hundred yards of homes in the Polson area. Fire managers were concerned Thursday that it might spread to an area of heavy timber to the north, and stressed the fire could flare up again at any moment. "Nothing is a done deal by any stretch up here," said fire information officer Jill Cobb.