Gusty Wind, Low Humidities Test Fire Lines

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Gusty wind and low humidities in advance of a cold front tested fire lines across the state Sunday and prompted more evacuations at several blazes in western Montana.

Red-flag warnings, denoting critical fire conditions, were posted in a number of areas through Monday. A severe thunderstorm watch also was in effect, with the possibility of large hail and gusts of up to 70 mph.

“We’re in a yurt and the wind keeps lifting us up and setting us down,” said Marian Swinney, information officer for a blaze 17 miles northwest of Missoula that has burned 7,900 acres, or 12 square miles, since it was sparked by lighting last Tuesday.

Heavy smoke and other safety concerns temporarily shut down a stretch of U.S. 93 on Saturday, and authorities on Sunday asked residents along a two-mile stretch of the highway to be prepared to evacuate because of gusty wind, Swinney said.

“They’re asking people to please be ready to leave within an hour and to move livestock and that kind of stuff out of the way,” she said.

Up to 100 homes between the fire and Evaro were still evacuated. And while residents on the southern portion of Lower Mill Creek Road were allowed to return Saturday night, authorities may have to evacuate them again due to the wind, Swinney said.

Three mobile homes near Frenchtown were destroyed when the fire exploded Thursday night.

Near Seeley Lake, wind pushed the Jocko Lakes fire toward Placid Lake, prompting authorities to issue an evacuation order for the area Sunday afternoon, said Paul Slenkamp, fire information officer. He did not immediately know how many homes were involved.

The lightning-sparked blaze has burned 27,990 acres, or 43.7 square miles, since Aug. 3 and was 20 percent contained.

One home has been destroyed in that blaze, and several others damaged.

Southeast of Missoula, Granite County authorities evacuated 213 cabins and homes in the path of a complex of fires burning in three national forests.

Many of the residences were unoccupied, and fire information officer Bruce MacDonald said the move was more a precautionary one because of erratic wind Sunday afternoon. Cooler temperatures and higher humidities were forecast starting Monday.

“We’ll be much better off” once the front moves through, MacDonald said.

The fires are part of the Sawmill complex, which has burned at least 47,290 acres, or 73.8 square miles, and was 15 percent contained. The blazes have cost $8.1 million to fight so far.

In the Bitterroot Valley, residents of 25 to 30 homes remained evacuated after the Rombo Mountain fire 18 miles south of Darby ballooned to at least 17,000 acres, or 26.5 square miles, and launched a spot fire more than a mile from the main burn, officials said.

Crews estimated the blaze was about 3 miles from the homes. It was sparked by lightning July 31.