LOLO - Fueled by strong winds and dry weather, the Lolo Peak fire exploded Friday and added several thousand acres as the blaze continues to grow between Florence and Lolo.
According to Saturday morning's statistics, the fire has now charred nearly 28,000 acres including 9,000 acres on Friday.
The smoke billowed from the hillsides and flames lit up the night sky.
Evacuations remain in place for hundreds of homes and thousands of residents in the Lolo and Florence areas.
Fire officials said despite the movement of the Lolo Peak fire, no additional homes have been reported lost.
Two homes off of Highway 93 south of Lolo as well as several structures burned when the fire made a run on Thursday.
Fire managers announced Saturday morning that Highway 12 will now be closed to all traffic west of Lolo beginning at Sleeman Creek Road.
Only fire traffic will be allowed through this area and all roads into the areas under an evacuation order remain closed due to fire traffic.
The Montana National Guard is arriving Saturday to help man checkpoints and patrol evacuated areas to provide relief for overtaxed local law enforcement.
Most of the fire activity on Friday was seen along the north end of the fire where strong west winds pushed the fire to the east.
Due to spotting, the fire burned almost to the Highway 12 corridor, which forced fire managers to request that the route be closed to all non-fire traffic and the Sleeman Creek Road be evacuated.
The blaze also pushed south in the Highway 93 corridor, which resulted in additional evacuations in the One Horse vicinity directly west of Florence.
By late Friday afternoon and throughout the night, the emphasis changed to structure protection.
Mandatory evacuation orders
Crews will spend Saturday assessing spotting along Highway 12 from Friday night’s run and look for opportunities to bring the fire down to the control line.
Firefighters will continue to concentrate resources on the northeast side of the fire.
More resources will be deployed Saturday on the Highway 93 side of the fire near Florence because of activity in the Maple and Carlton Creek drainages.
There are 850 structures still threatened by the blaze that has cost an estimated $18.8 million to fight.
There are 655 people assigned to battle the lightning-sparked blaze.
Fire managers caution that Saturday could see more explosive growth of the blaze with a Red Flag warning in effect from 12 p.m. until 9 p.m.
Authorities said a drone was reported in the fire area on Friday, forcing fire managers to shut down air operations over the fire area during its major run along Highway 12.
Anyone who sees a drone is asked to call (406) 272-5433.
Drivers are reminded not to stop along the highways to view fire activity as it creates a significant traffic hazard and can slow fire traffic response time.
Stop by the FireWise trailer on the east-side of the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 93 in Lolo or the Florence-Carlton School for the most current fire information.
Missoula County evacuees can call (406) 258-INFO for assistance while Ravalli County evacuees should call (406) 375-4055.