BILLINGS – As wildfires burn across more than 200 square miles in central and southeastern Montana, evacuated residents began returning Friday to areas where entire rural neighborhoods have been reduced to piles of ash.
“Where we used to live is not home anymore,” said 57-year-old Jim Tracy, whose house was one of 70 destroyed in the Dahl fire in the Bull Mountains south of Roundup. “There’s nothing living there. It’s dead. Everything is destroyed, and all you have is just dust devils blowing.”
At least two dozen structures were reported burned in the Ashland area near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, and four houses destroyed in Helena.
More weather systems are expected to pass through the region in the next several days. That’s prompting hundreds of firefighters to dig in along the edges of the major blazes and try to tamp them down before the wind whips them back to life.
Some 600 Roundup-area residents who evacuated were allowed to return to their houses Friday as U.S. Highway 87, closed since Tuesday, was re-opened.
But the 30-square-mile Dahl fire was only 25 percent contained and still flaring up in some areas. It was expected to burn through the night, and officials warned residents they may be asked to leave on one-hour notice if the flames start moving toward their property.
In Ashland, officials overseeing the 170-square-mile Ash Creek fire were bracing for stiff winds expected to arrive as early as Friday afternoon.
“That’s going to give us some fits,” said Ash Creek fire information officer Pat Mckelvey. “It’s going to be brief, but we’re warning every about it.”
The fire was only 5 percent contained Friday, a day after two more homes and three outbuildings burned by the lightning-caused fire that ignited Tuesday and raced through the town of Ashland.
A representative of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said as many as 32 houses have burned. Mckelvey said he could confirm only that 26 structures have burned, but he couldn’t say how many of them were houses.
North of Helena, hundreds of residents returned to their homes after four days of evacuations from a fire that started Monday with an ember from a resident’s controlled burn that was believed to be out.
Four houses were destroyed after strong winds and high temperatures fanned the 3-square-mile fire, but by Thursday evening the blaze was 55 percent contained and equipment was being diverted to other fires.
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