A three-vehicle evacuation convoy sped north from Polebridge around 8 p.m. on July 24—a date that was literally burned into the memories of everyone living along the North Fork of the Flathead River. For five days, crews battled the lightening-started Wedge Canyon Fire just west of Glacier National Park. By day two, the fire was threatening homes in the North Fork. And by Thursday, July 24, it was time to evacuate.
“Today was the day we knew we were going to lose it or we were going to catch it,” Fire Boss Bob Sandman told North Forkers during the daily community briefing. His message to the group: We lost it.
Sandman, who manages fires for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, summarized the days’ events. Residential buildings thought safe near Tepee Lake were consumed by a “firestorm.” The trouble escalated when flames jumped a bulldozed firebreak, crossed the North Fork Road and cut off at least 100 members of Sandman’s crew. As he addressed the crowd in Polebridge from a stage behind the Northern Lights Saloon, Sandman pointed to a helicopter flying overhead. Four huge bundles dangled in tow as the chopper flew north toward the stranded firefighters.
“That’s dinner for 100 of my people,” said Sandman, recalling that one of the fire-fighting bomber planes used to drop flame retardant had made a crash landing earlier in the day. Apparently, the plane ran out of fuel in mid-air, forcing the pilot to coast into a grassy airstrip near Moose Creek.
Moose Creek, as it turns out, is where the three evacuation vehicles were headed when they took off from Polebridge around 8 p.m. They were three friends driving two pickups and a Suburban. Each sped through blinding blasts of dust kicked up by tractor trailers beating a hasty retreat from the Wedge Fire’s front lines. The 18-wheelers carried bulldozers, graders and logging machinery. They were headed in the opposite direction as the three evacuation volunteers, and away from the cabins up Moose Creek.
When the three volunteers turned onto Moose Creek Road, most of the residents were already gone. At the end of most driveways, the word “out” was written on paper plates tacked to trees. It was a signal to authorities, a heads-up about which residences were already evacuated.
At the end of one driveway, the word “here” was spray-painted in neon orange. This was the place, and when the three friends arrived at the picturesque cottage with flower boxes and postcard views of Glacier Park, they found the driveway filled with other volunteers driving pickups and SUVs. The mood was surprisingly mellow. No one was rushing, because the owners of the cabin were still weighing their options: Do they flee now, or do they hold out another day?
The fire was advancing, but the homeowners decided to hold out, choosing to fill only the Suburban and one pickup with a few just-in-case valuables: an antique table, a fly rod, a kayak. The sun began to set. A sprinkler feebly moistened the lawn. And just over the ridge, the Wedge Canyon Fire continued to grow.