High Winds Push Fire Into Homes West of Missoula

By Beacon Staff

FRENCHTOWN (AP) – Residents evacuated Thursday from a fast-burning wildfire that threatened more than 200 homes were trying to determine whether theirs were still standing.

Mike Rutter watched, in the early Friday darkness, as the lights of fire engines intermingled with flames on a distant hillside near his home.

“I’m definitely worried,” he said, sitting in a church parking lot with his two children after midnight. “We’re just hoping these guys are successful. I know they are trying.”

Officials did not have a firm count on the number of homes that burned, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that at least three had been lost.

High winds pushed the wildfire out of the forest and into homes in the rural area west of Missoula Thursday evening, authorities said. The fire calmed down after sunset, but flames could still be seen from town _ flaring up occasionally on a hill dotted with emergency vehicles.

Some 300 residents were ordered to evacuate, according to FEMA. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The Black Cat fire was among more than a dozen major wildfires burning in Montana. At last official estimate, it had burned 850 acres.

FEMA spokesman Ricardo Zuniga said state officials had reported the fire at an estimated 3,300 acres.

The fire, which began Tuesday about 16 miles from Missoula, took off Thursday afternoon when thunderstorms blew over the area, fueling erratic winds.

The federal government late Thursday approved a request from the state that will cover up to 75 percent of costs to fight the fire, Zuniga said.

More than 200 firefighters were working the blaze, and fire officials hoped to get more crews and equipment Friday. They also hoped to map the fire area in the morning.

Some of the firefighters continued working through the night, focusing on structure protection and keeping the fire away from Interstate 90, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Fool Creek fire was burning on the northern edge of the Teton Pass Ski Area, which features two lifts, a day lodge and a ski shop. The burned land included an area targeted for new ski runs and was within view of the existing ski operation, said Jonathan Stoltz, an owner of the business.

The fire, burning in the Lewis and Clark and the Flathead national forests, had blackened 46,908 acres, or about 73 square miles.

A fire southeast of Missoula continued to threaten homes along Rock Creek. Nearly 80 homes and cabins remained evacuated Thursday, but people were allowed brief visits to check on their property. The blaze was one of three burning in the area. Combined, the fires had scorched about 41,705 acres, or just over 65 square miles.

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