‘Looked like hell’: Paradise blaze shadows other firestorms

PARADISE — Even the old-timers were shocked at how fast the River Road East fire bore down on this small Montana town last month. 

Aug. 18, a Friday, had been an otherwise unremarkable day in the unincorporated town of fewer than 200 people, nestled in a verdant mountain valley just downstream of where the Flathead River flows into the Clark Fork.

Freight trains rolled through the former railroad town along the Clark Fork as they had since the 1880s. Locals assembled at the American Legion Post 129 bar on Highway 200. The highway is the town’s de facto main street, the Legion its lone watering hole.

It was quite windy, residents recalled, with air coursing powerfully around the steep mountains that envelop the town 52 miles northwest of Missoula. Nearby weather stations reported temperatures approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit and sustained winds stronger than 20 mph with gusts faster than 30 mph — and that was down in the valley.

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Around 1 p.m. or so, yet another freight train rumbled through town, hardly worth a glance outside. But soon after, locals said, people began noticing a small column of smoke rising from

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