HELENA (AP) – The top four fires in the West burned in Montana on Wednesday as hot, dry weather continued to fuel blazes that threatened hundreds of homes on a day that would normally mark the beginning of the summer wildfire season.
Drought has put most of the state two to three weeks ahead of schedule as far as fires, and with more scorching heat and little rain in the forecast, “It’s going to be a long season,” said Warren Bielenberg, fire information officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
“The cloud cover we have and the cooler temperatures (Wednesday morning) are definitely going to slow down fire behavior, but … it’s supposed to dry out in the afternoon,” he said. “We expect to see columns of smoke today, and the fires are going to make some runs.”
The West’s No. 1 firefighting priority Wednesday was the Meriwether fire in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness north of Helena. It grew to 20,745 acres, or about 32 square miles, and forced the evacuation of campers and residents of another 60 homes southeast of Wolf Creek on Tuesday.
Residents of at least 60 other homes were evacuated earlier, and the blaze continued to spread to the north toward Holter Lake, a popular recreation area, and through the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area. The fire was about 25 percent contained, although winds of up to 20 mph were expected Wednesday afternoon, said Bonney McNabb, fire information officer.
The No. 2 fire in the West was a nearly 3,000-acre blaze east of Clinton in western Montana that forced the evacuation Tuesday night of about 40 homes in the West Fork of Cramer Creek. The blaze had closed nearby Interstate 90 a day earlier, and was also threatening power lines and other structures, Bielenberg said.
The fire was 10 percent contained Wednesday morning, officials said.
West of Philipsburg, campers and residents of 40 homes west of Philipsburg were still displaced because of a fire managed with two others in what is called the Sawmill complex.
The complex was estimated at 2,520 acres and included a blaze in Granite County southeast of Missoula that threatened as many as 100 homes. That fire, sparked by lightning two weeks ago, flared in recent days.
The Skyland blaze south of Glacier National Park was the No. 3 firefighting priority in the West. It grew to about 16,000 acres and remained 5 percent contained. Evacuation was recommended for several homes in the area, and the Summit Station Lodge had been emptied of its guests and 18 employees.
Both lanes of U.S. Highway 2, the major east-west route across northern Montana, opened to traffic without escorts Tuesday night, and crews continued burnouts along the two-lane highway to keep the blaze from jumping the road, said Dale Warriner, a fire information officer. Authorities said they would close the highway if helicopters need to operate near Marias Pass. Speed restrictions were in place.
Montana’s largest wildfire, the Ahorn blaze west of Augusta, grew to 39,220 acres and was just 3 percent contained Wednesday, Bielenberg said. Authorities ordered 27 homes evacuated on the northeast corner of the fire, and ranchers were moving cattle to safer pastures as the blaze continued to expand.
Crews also were putting resources in place should the fire make a run out of the forest and onto the prairie. That scenario could be days away, but nine engines and a helitak crew were standing by, and more resources were being ordered, Bielenberg said.
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