Fires near Seeley Lake, Lolo prompt evacuations; waters closed on Seeley Lake

The Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake prompted Missoula County law enforcement to begin issuing evacuation warnings as fire crews brace for poor conditions. (Inciweb photo)

When the phone rang at the Rice residence on Monday, the message was clear – they better get their campers out and do it quickly.

They complied and left just ahead of the advancing Rice Ridge fire.

“As soon as we turned on Cottonwood Lakes Road, the fire was at the tip of the hill and it was coming down,” Lizzie Rice said Tuesday morning. “We got up there around 10 last night and didn’t get out until 2 in the morning. It was so smokey, but we got most of the trailers. We had to leave our Airstream up there.”

The Rice Ridge fire three miles east of Seeley Lake became the latest western Montana fire to force residents out of their homes under an evacuation warning this week.

Residents and campers on both sides of Highway 83 south of Rice Ridge Road and due south of Cottonwood Lakes Road are being asked to leave as firefighters brace for red flag conditions and another active day of burning.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on Tuesday also closed the waters of Seeley Lake so aircraft can fill their buckets for suppression of the Rice Ridge fire. The closure is effective immediately and includes any use of the lake.

Lizzie Rice shows the evacuation notice placed on the door of her trailer near Cottonwood Lakes. (Missoula Current)

The fire, which started on July 24 as a result of lightning, grew to 4,000 acres Tuesday morning. Cottonwood Lakes Road is now closed to the public and additional fire crews are expected on scene today as efforts grow to keep the blaze from entering populated areas.

“It blew up last night and was pretty scary,” said Rice. “The fire crews were doing 100 percent what they could do. When we got up there the road was closed, but they let us go in. Thank God most everybody was in one place. It was like a train of trailers coming out of there.”

Brenda Bassett, spokesperson for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies were working to contact residents on Tuesday morning.

“Residents there should be taking steps to prepare for a short-notice evacuation,” said Bassett. “Should there be an order, deputies will make every effort to recontact residents in the evacuation area.”

Bassett said if time is limited, law enforcement will use sirens on a slow-moving vehicle to notify residents to leave the area.

The sheriff’s department also issued evacuation warnings to residents near Lolo as the Lolo Peak fire continues its steady march. Bassett said warning affects residents on the south side of Highway 12 from Elk Meadows Road to Fort Fizzle, including Mill Creek.