Helena Grass Fire Destroys One Home

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – A fast-moving grass fire destroyed one unoccupied house and a few outbuildings Sunday on the west edge of town. There were no injuries reported.

The 50-acre blaze, reported at 2 p.m., prompted the evacuation of a mobile home park and several other homes near Spring Meadow Lake, affecting about 500 people, authorities said.

Brisk winds caused the fire to spread quickly to the northeast.

At the time, the National Weather Service recorded winds of 15 mph in the area with gusts of up to 27 mph. A peak gust of 31 mph was recorded at 2:49 p.m., said Jim Brusda, a Weather Service meteorologist in Great Falls.

Fire spokeswoman Amy Teegarden said two helicopters dropped water on the fire and 150 firefighters fought the flames on the ground. A house that was not lived in and about three outbuildings were destroyed, she said.

The fire was largely under control by about 5:30 p.m., with firefighters mopping up hot spots, Teegarden said. Residents of the mobile home park were allowed to return by nightfall, but the evacuation order remained for the outlying homes closest to the fire.

Vicki Sanburg and her husband were working on a fence outside their home on Country Club Avenue when they saw the smoke Sunday afternoon.

“We just dropped everything and saw it was coming really fast,” Vicki Sanburg said. “We ran. We didn’t meander.”

The couple went knocking on their neighbors’ doors to alert them and then managed to get their kids and the dog in the car.

“We left before they evacuated anyone because it was right on our doorstep,” she said.

By early evening, a sheriff’s deputy had taken her to see her house. She saw the fire had stopped right on the property line of their home, where her and her husband have lived for 16 years.

“It did not burn one blade of grass on our property,” she told her husband, Tom, who smiled and said, “Good thing I watered the grass yesterday.”

The fire destroyed at least four power poles and caused an electrical outage affecting about 3,000 people, said NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch.

It would take utility crews five or six hours to repair the damage and restore power from the time the crews were allowed into the area, Rapkoch said.

Teegarden said the fire also damaged a historic, unoccupied building on the site of the Montana Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center on the south shore of Spring Meadow Lake.

The shelter currently houses 10 black bears and two grizzly bear cubs, Teegarden said. The animals were not evacuated and were unharmed.

Teegarden said area residents and firefighters were lucky that things turned out as well as they did, given the gusty winds and dry conditions.

“We need to realize this was a very close call,” Teegarden said. “We need to remind people that the fire danger is still extremely high.”