- Associated Press - Friday, August 28, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Firefighters cut down trees and turned on sprinklers Friday after authorities emptied the community of Essex and turned back traffic where a wildfire had spread close to a highway along the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

The 1.7-square-mile wildfire crossed a key ridge south of Essex on Thursday, prompting Flathead County authorities to order evacuations and later close an eight-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2.

Of the more than 200 buildings threatened by the fire, 106 were year-round and vacation residences, including the Izaak Walton Inn.

A handful of residents chose to ignore the evacuation order and stay with their homes, Flathead County spokeswoman Jennifer Rankosky said.

“In any situation like that, you can’t force somebody to leave,” Rankosky said. “They are told that they are assuming the risk for staying.”

Firefighters stationed in the community prepared for the encroaching fire by pruning trees, wrapping outlying cabins in protective foil and setting sprinklers around homes in hopes wet vegetation would snuff out any stray embers.

Other fire crews created fuel breaks by logging trees along a five-mile stretch of forest parallel to the highway. The gaps in vegetation will reduce the risk of the fire spreading from tree crown to tree crown toward the roadway and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s main northern rail line.

“A surface fire you can deal with better than a crown fire,” fire information officer Ted Pettis said.

The logs were being loaded onto railcars and carried to a staging area out of the fire zone.

Fire crews started their day at 3 a.m. to get as much work in before 2 p.m., when fire restrictions kick in and require mechanical operations to stop.

More than 330 firefighters are assigned to the fire and two others nearby in Glacier park and Flathead National Forest that have burned a combined 30 square miles at a cost of $4.8 million. They were among dozens of active wildfires burning across Montana, with red-flag and air-quality warnings issued across the western half of the state.

Train traffic was running slowly and intermittently through the fire zone, with operators checking for updates before each train passed through, Rankosky said. The rail line is a major route for passenger and cargo trains hauling oil, coal and agricultural products to the Northwest.

Montana Highway Patrol troopers blocked highway traffic to the south and north of Essex. The closure turned a 58-mile trip from East Glacier to West Glacier into either a 330-mile detour south or, for cars willing to pay Glacier park’s entrance fee, a precarious, tourist-choked ride on Going-to-the-Sun Road over Logan Pass to the north.

Only two Essex residents spent the night at a Red Cross shelter in West Glacier, and they found alternative housing by Friday, Rankosky said.

Meanwhile, a wildfire burning near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana has prompted voluntary evacuations for the community of Heart Butte, said Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes.

Tribal authorities and law enforcement from Glacier and Pondera counties are knocking on doors to notify residents, KSEN radio reports.

The community of Heart Butte has just under 600 residents, according to census data.

The fire east of the Flathead National Forest has burned just over 1 square mile.

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