ROUNDUP — Firefighters battling a wildfire that has scorched 31 square miles south of Roundup got a break in the weather Thursday, while a blaze on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation persisted in extracting a heavy toll with at least 32 homes burned so far.
Hundreds of people who evacuated ahead of the two fast-moving fires remained out of their homes.
In Roundup, residents who were forced to leave grew increasingly frustrated that they have not been allowed to return to see if they have anything left.
Inside the Dahl fire zone, located in the Bull Mountains several miles south of Roundup, firefighters worked amid houses burned to their foundation and stands of blackened, smoldering trees. The 20,000-acre fire was 25 percent contained Thursday evening.
Near one house that was left standing, a dead fawn could be seen in a patch of charred grass.
Officials said the fire has burned dozens of residences, but a precise tally was not available while fire officials were surveying the area.
Officials Thursday night released a tally of 64 structures that had been burned but did not specify how many were homes.
After the flames jumped the Dahl fire’s southern perimeter Wednesday, firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading significantly thanks in part to cooler temperatures and dying winds.
By late Thursday, the smoke cleared enough to allow officials to re-open state Highway 87 south of Roundup to through-traffic after a two-day closure. Areas off the highway were still off-limits.
Fire officials expected the break in the weather to last a couple of days. As federal firefighting teams arrived and took over from local fire departments, they rushed to bolster containment lines at the fire’s edges before another expected front arrives Sunday or Monday.
Resident Michelle Felts was anxious to return home with her 11-year-old daughter after they spent Tuesday night in their vehicle and Wednesday in a hotel. Law enforcement officers at roadblocks have prevented their return home, and Felts said she received no information at the emergency operations center.
“I don’t know where to go from here. I want to go home,” Felts said.
Several residents repeated Felts’ concerns at a community meeting in Roundup attended by more than 100 people. Some questioned why they were being kept out of areas that hadn’t burned, while others said they wanted to return to protect their property and fight the fire themselves.
Barney and Nancy Borninkhof were given 15 minutes to leave their home. Barney Bornikhof, 70, said they grabbed important documents, clothes and his guns.
Bornikhof said his neighbor’s house was already burning when they left — and he was sure his house met the same fate.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a done deal, but you just gather yourself up and do it again,” he said.
It’s the second time in two years that disaster struck communities in and around Roundup, where spring floods last year cut off homes and forced evacuations that lasted weeks.
A network of churches was established then to provide evacuees with meals and clothes. Now the volunteers have that same distribution system up and running again, said Patrick Perrella, the grand knight of the Knights of Columbus.
“We’re able to do a lot of it from memory. This is old hat,” Perrella said.
Musselshell County Sheriff Woodrow Weitzeil said Thursday it was not clear whether anybody is missing after he told the Billings Gazette the day before that one person was unaccounted for.
To the southeast, on and around the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, milder weather allowed firefighters to keep the 110,000-acre Ash Creek fire in check overnight Wednesday.
But the winds picked up again Thursday, said a tribal official, and the number of houses burned grew from 18 to 32.
Northern Cheyenne emergency services administrator Ed Joiner said that includes 20 homes on the impoverished reservation that burned since the fire ignited Tuesday. He said at least 12 more burned in neighboring Rosebud and Powder River Counties.
And with high temperatures and windy conditions in the forecast for the next several days, Joiner says the blaze could keep growing.
“When that wind comes up, it’s just pretty unpredictable what it’s going to do,” Joiner said.
Just north of Helena, evacuation orders were lifted for all residents forced to leave because of the 1,850-acre Corral fire.
The fire, which has burned four homes, was 40 percent contained and crews were working to keep it from spreading west and east. Fire officials sounded a note of cautious optimism.
“I’m just glad it’s over — I hope,” West Helena Valley Fire Chief Jerry Shepherd said.
The order meant that Guus Schippers, a Dutch national who has lived in the Helena Valley for the past 11 years, could move out of a hotel and return to his 15-acre property with his wife and dogs for the first time since Monday. He said the fire was about a half-mile away from his house when he got the call to evacuate Monday.
He and his neighbor, Katy Norris, said they both had hundreds of trees, many of them killed by mountain pine beetles, recently removed from their land thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Norris’ property was treated just eight weeks ago.
“It really saved our properties,” she said, pointing to an aerial photo on her phone where a line of charred trees ended near her land.
Near the Madison River northeast of Ennis, the 14,770-acre Bear Trap fire was 12 percent contained after burning three structures as of Wednesday night.
Southeast of Whitehall, fire crews also were expecting better weather as they build fire lines around the 4,700-acre Pony fire. Eighty homes were threatened by that fire.
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