HELENA (AP) – Residents of about 80 homes north of here were allowed to return Thursday, after a fire in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness that forced them to flee several days ago changed course and was expanding in another direction.
Residents could be asked to leave again if the Meriwether fire, which has charred 31,328 acres or nearly 49 square miles, flared up, said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle.
Campgrounds in the Holter Lake area remained closed.
Firefighters “feel they have pretty good handle on that arm of the fire that was threatening the Holter Lake area, but again this fire is so unpredictable that that could change,” Liedle told The Associated Press. “We are feeling that folks will be safe at this time and do want to get them back into their homes.”
Residents of about 40 homes in a subdivision near the fire’s southeastern edge were still displaced, as were people in the nearby Beaver Creek and Nelson areas.
The blaze continued its spread to the southeast Thursday and hand crews, aircraft and bulldozers were working to build lines and keep it contained to the wilderness area, said Cheryl Larsen, fire information officer. Ranchers began moving cattle out of the area as a precaution.
The fire has cost about $250,000 per day to fight. Kevin Riordan, Helena National Forest supervisor, said officials expected the blaze to keep burning for another two months.
Fire information officer Amy Teegarden said incident commanders told them at a morning briefing they were dealing with fire behavior that’s “off the charts.”
“He said we are rewriting the textbooks of how fire spreads. … And this fire behavior isn’t isolated to Meriwether; we’re seeing this everywhere,” Teegarden told the Helena Independent-Record.
Southeast of Missoula, residents of about 40 homes in the West Fork of Cramer Creek were still displaced Thursday as the Mile Marker 124 fire along Interstate 90 grew to 5,720 acres, said Laura McConnell, fire information officer. It was 15 percent contained Thursday, but threatened power lines and other structures.
Investigators believe a vehicle with mechanical problems on the interstate sparked the blaze, and were asking the public for more information.
Along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, the Skyland fire had spread over nearly 19,500 acres, or some 30 square miles, and was just five percent contained. A lodge was evacuated and residents of several homes had been urged to leave. Burnouts were planned on both sides of Marias Pass next to U.S. Highway 2, a major east-west route across northern Montana.
“We’ve had pretty minimal growth,” said Annette Gomez, fire information officer. “The wind just switched on us,” sending the fire back into areas that had already burned.
A break in the weather kept Montana’s largest wildfire, the Ahorn fire west of Augusta, at 39,220 acres, or 61 square miles, although the blaze was still just two percent contained, fire officials said. Authorities had ordered 27 homes evacuated and ranchers moved cattle to safer pastures.
The fire was burning only a few miles south of Gibson Reservoir, threatening cabins in the Mortimer Gulch area, and higher temperatures were expected Thursday.
Crews began battling the Fool Creek wildfire, sparked by lightning in late June, after the nearly 22,000-acre blaze burned out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and toward the Choteau area, said fire information officer Cathie Schmidlin.
West of Philipsburg, campers remained evacuated and as many as 190 homes and 340 outbuildings were threatened by the Sawmill Complex of fires, which have burned an estimated 4,460 acres.
There were no evacuation orders, but fire managers planned for possible evacuations depending on how much the three fires spread Thursday.
“In 24 hours, the Sawmill and Wyman II fires have the potential to reach structures along Rock Creek,” fire information officer Karen Semple said.
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