BILLINGS – A wildfire pushed closer to a ski hill outside the resort town of Red Lodge Wednesday, as 30 mile-per-hour winds fanned the flames and authorities asked resort employees to evacuate.
By early evening, the fire had grown to 7,539 acres, or almost 12 square miles.
An evacuation order remained in force for 90 homes below the base of the ski mountain. Residents of an additional 200 homes have been told to be prepared to leave.
Since the fire began Saturday, crews had kept the Cascade fire largely confined to a canyon that runs out of the Beartooth Mountains along the West Fork of Rock Creek. But as winds picked up Wednesday afternoon, the flames pushed north and east toward the ski area.
Officials were wary the blaze could make another run toward houses at the mouth of the canyon if winds continued. Gusts of wind were carrying burning embers a quarter- to half-mile in front of the blaze, sparking new fires.
The fire was less than eight miles west of the town of Red Lodge.
Early in the afternoon, the fire skirted a line of flame retardant intended to shield Red Lodge Mountain Resort. It pushed down the canyon to within about 1-1/2 miles of the top of the ski hill, said Jeff Gildehaus with the Custer National Forest.
“They painted that ridge pretty hard (with fire retardant). It looks like it got around the bottom of the retardant line,” Gildehaus said.
A firefighter on the scene said a thick cloud of smoke was rising out of the canyon late Wednesday afternoon. But the firefighter, Jon Trapp with the Red Lodge Volunteer Fire Department, said it was impossible to tell exactly where the blaze was moving.
Fire information officials said employees of Red Lodge Mountain Resort had been told to leave the mountain. But a ski area employee said some resort staff were still on scene at about 4:30 p.m..
“We’re still here,” said the resort’s Eliza Kuntz. “We’re here with a bunch of guys and we’re getting our water turned on. We’re just starting to spray our buildings down. We’ve got people turning snow guns on and then we’re going to get them down.”
Artificial snow-making guns have been used for the past several days to wet down the resort’s lodges and ski lift shacks.
The fire was 5 percent contained Wednesday morning, meaning crews established fire lines around a small section of the blaze after several days’ effort. Six miles of fire lines have been dug to protect the ski resort and houses and other structures down-canyon from the fire.
Red Lodge, a tourism-oriented town 60 miles southwest of Billings, depends heavily on the ski resort as a major winter draw. Fire commanders have made protecting it a top priority and tanker aircraft had dropped multiple loads of retardant between the ski hill and the fire.
The fire also led to the cancellation of the 58th annual Red Lodge Festival of Nations, scheduled to begin Friday. The American Red Cross was using the Civic Center where some festival events were slated to occur, and the air quality was so poor that events scheduled for a city park could not be held.
Although the evacuation order remained for the 90-home Grizzly Peak subdivision, residents were allowed in temporarily Wednesday morning to check on their homes and retrieve belongings.
The fire started Saturday and has burned five structures in the Camp Senia area and a structure and two outbuildings at a Montana State University research camp. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. It has cost $1.25 million to fight so far. About 500 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the fire.
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