Governor Tours 5,800-Acre Fire Near Red Lodge

By Beacon Staff

RED LODGE – Airplanes and helicopters dumped fire retardant and water on a fast-growing canyon fire outside this ski town Monday, trying to corral a blaze that was eating through blown-down timber and heavy lodgepole stands.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer took a small group of reporters aboard his airplane to get a closer look at the 5,800-acre fire.

Viewed from the air, pillows of dark smoke piled up to the ridgeline on either side of the canyon. Flames could be seen shooting skyward as tree crowns were engulfed. Where the blaze had already passed, all that remained were the blackened skeletons of thousands of trees.

Following a briefing from fire commanders, Schweitzer said the Cascade fire was the most dangerous to hit the state so far this year.

“I’d like to limit people’s expectations,” he said. “Not to be a pessimist, but if you get 25 to 35 mph winds, you’re not going to be putting people in front of it.”

Jeff Gildehaus, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said the fire was putting up a pretty good column of smoke Monday evening.

“The way the column is cranking up right now, it’s going to be 6,000-some (acres) by tomorrow morning, if not more,” he said.

Strong winds forecast for Tuesday threaten to push the fire toward a ski hill and dozens of homes.

Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz warned that if the fire blows out of the canyon, his crews might not be able to protect at least 90 homes in the Grizzly Peaks subdivision, which was evacuated Sunday.

With only one road in and the subdivision thick with trees, Kuntz said it could prove too risky.

“The worst-case scenario is a real possibility. And in the worst-case scenario, we can’t put anybody on it in there,” he said.

Five summer cabins have already burned in the Cascade fire. The owner of one, Jim Moore, said his cabin was closest to where the fire began Saturday.

“It was doomed from the beginning,” he said. “I’m sure it was in ashes before the fire trucks even hit the Forest Service boundary.”

Moore said he is now concerned about his primary residence in town.

Approximately 280 firefighters and support personnel had arrived by late Monday to battle the blaze. Four air tankers dropped fire retardant on the flanks of the fire, while five helicopters dropped water.

At least one 20-man crew was airlifted to the back side of the fire to begin setting up a perimeter.

At Red Lodge Mountain Resort, employees were running at least eight snowmaking guns to spray water on its two lodges and several lift shacks to help protect the area.

“The ski area is a very high priority for everyone involved,” Kuntz said. “It’s a significant economic driver for the community six months out of the year. By keeping the ski area viable, we keep the community viable.”

The snowmaking guns draw water from ponds near the top of the mountain.

In the Tipi Village subdivision, about five miles from the fire, homeowner Kyle Tompkins was ready Monday for a quick evacuation if the blaze moved his way.

“I did wet the grass a little bit, but what can you do?” asked Tompkins, 47, who works from a home office. “If it’s time, there’s not much a garden hose is going to do.”

Tompkins said he and others in Tipi Village had expected that a major fire in the mountains above their homes was “just a matter of time.”

That expectation grew after an intense wind storm in November knocked down trees across several thousand acres n including where the Cascade fire is burning.

Realizing the danger of having so many houses near or even within the forest, the Red Lodge fire department this year began conducting fire risk assessments.

Jon Trapp, the firefighter in charge of the effort, said houses examined ranged from those with ample treeless buffer zones and tin roofs to structures with wooden shingles and vegetation right up to the doorstep.

“They started to do some work up there in Grizzly Peak (to make homes more fire safe), but they’ve got a long way to go,” Trapp said.