HELENA – Authorities ordered evacuations Monday for 200 residents north of Helena and a dozen homes in a rural community southeast of Whitehall, as scorching heat and strong winds fueled wildfires across western Montana.
Gawkers blocked traffic in the Helena Valley and watched helicopters dump buckets of water on the flames burning in the Corral Fire in the Scratchgravel Hills. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, his sport utility vehicle blocking a turnoff, told a deputy to order the bystanders to leave for their own safety — the fire was threatening to move toward them.
“You can see it right there,” Dutton said, pointing to flames visible from the roadway. “It’s spotting and it’s headed that way.”
Dutton said it was not immediately clear what started the fire, how large it was or whether any structures had been damaged, but no injuries have been reported and a mandatory evacuation had been issued for about 200 people from about 30 homes.
The Red Cross opened a shelter for evacuees at a nearby church, trailers carried horses and livestock from the evacuation area and authorities blocked traffic from entering a major thoroughfare crossing the Helena Valley.
Fire officials from the city, East Helena and the state responded, and Dutton said he also asked for assistance from the military.
Red-flag conditions caused new fires to ignite and existing fires to spread. Temperatures in the region topped 90 degrees, while the humidity was expected to drop below 15 percent, and the wind was expected to blow at 25 mph with gusts up to 35 mph.
The National Weather Service issued the red-flag warning until 9 p.m. for southwestern Montana, stretching from the Idaho border to north of Helena.
Two fires totaling more than 3,100 acres, or nearly 4 square miles, were burning about 30 miles apart from each other after igniting last weekend in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Dozens of firefighters battled the blazes as they faced temperatures that soared into the 90s and wind gusts as high as 35 mph.
A fourth wildfire broke out Monday morning east of Norris near the Bear Trap area of the Madison River, forcing state officials to close two river access points. Bureau of Land Management officials closed its land along that corridor in Bear Trap Canyon.
“It’s extreme fire behavior for this time of the year,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Hagengruber said. “We’re not anticipating that there will be much of a break in the weather pattern until tomorrow afternoon, and that’s being optimistic.”
The Pony Fire in the Tobacco Root Mountains has burned approximately 2,500 acres and was encroaching upon the Mammoth area southeast of Whitehall. Madison County authorities ordered the evacuation of the area as a precautionary measure, Hagengruber said.
The evacuation order was issued from near Pony to the Judson Mean Indiana University Research Station near the intersection of South Boulder and Carmichael Creek roads.
Residents have been cooperative, with some booking hotel rooms in Whitehall, Hagengruber said.
Madison County Sheriff Dave Schenk did not immediately return a call for comment. The Montana Standard reported the Mammoth area has about a dozen homes.
The Pony fire has burned at least one structure near Carmichael Creek and firefighters were working to protect others. Officials were not certain what type of structure was damaged.
At least 80 people responded to the blaze burning through sage brush and timber. Two helicopters that had been used to fight the fire were grounded Monday afternoon due to strong wind.
The cause of the fire, which began on Sunday, was not known.
About 30 miles north of the Pony fire, the Antelope fire had spread to 682 acres Monday after it was reported Saturday.
Seventy people responded to the fire Monday, some having to contend with rattlesnakes in the hilly, forested terrain 10 miles north of Whitehall, Hagengruber said.
There have been no reports of structures being threatened by that fire, he said.
A Type 2 National Incident Command Team from northern Idaho took over management of the two fires Monday afternoon.
The Bear Trap fire burning in steep, partially timbered terrain in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness southwest of Bozeman was between 200 and 300 acres and uncontrolled as of Monday evening, according to Gallatin County authorities.
The fire broke out along Bear Trap Canyon Road, where there are several campsites, and it is believed to be human-caused,said Rick Waldrup of the BLM’s Dillon office.
Jon Grassy of the state Department of Natural Resources and Development said his agency has dispatched two helicopters to drop water on the fire. Ron Aasheim of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said agency officials closed two fishing access sites, Damselfly and Black Ford.
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