Eastern Montana Wildfire Grows, Evacuations Ordered

By Beacon Staff

Authorities in eastern Montana ordered the evacuation of several communities Saturday as the Ash Creek Complex fires consumed another 72 square miles and pushed the number of structures destroyed past 30.

The Powder River County Sheriff’s office ordered Wilbur, Whitetail, Beaver Creek and East Fork of Otter Creek residents out after the fire swelled to 244 square miles overnight.

Fire spokesman Pat McKelvey said one home and five outbuildings were destroyed overnight but no injuries were reported due to the lightning-caused fire that started Monday. The fire had destroyed at least 26 structures previously.

“We did have significant movement to the east,” he said, noting embers were causing spot fires a mile ahead of the main fire that’s burning in timber, juniper, pine, sage and grass.

He said officials were looking at Saturday as a chance to possibly strengthen fire lines before Sunday when high winds and lower humidity are predicted. The fire is about 25 percent contained.

“We are figuring today will be a lull day, if you can call 90 degree temperatures a lull,” he said.

Nearly 450 firefighters are at the blaze with more being called in, McKelvey said, adding that two helicopters are working the fire and fixed-wing retardant bombers are also available.

Elsewhere, firefighters worked to bolster fire lines on at least five other large fires ahead of the expected weather front Sunday predicted to bring high winds, higher temperatures and low humidity.

Dahl fire spokeswoman Dixie Dies says a red flag warning is already established for Sunday in the region near Roundup in central Montana.

“Our biggest concern today is the weather tomorrow,” Dies said. “We are working on reinforcing and strengthening and mopping up all of our lines to get rid of all visible smoke that might still be out there in preparation for the front that’s coming in tomorrow.”

Residents under mandatory evacuation earlier in the week on Friday were allowed to go back with the requirement they be ready if needed to leave within an hour, she said. That fire has so far destroyed 70 homes, she said, making a 12-mile run in one day.

A Type 1 Incident Management Team, one of 16 in the nation, is assigned to the blaze along with about 350 firefighters, 33 engines, four bulldozers and five helicopters. The lightning-caused fire that started Tuesday is about 45 percent contained.

Officials at the 4,800-acre Pony fire southeast of Whitehall said Saturday the fire was 5 percent contained. The cause of the fire that started June 24 is under investigation. The fire has destroyed four structures.

National Guard helps patrol Colorado fire damage
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Making steady progress Saturday against the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, crews kept a wary eye on weather that was getting warmer and drier as National Guard troops were deployed to help local police get things back to normal.

“The weather is making progress in a bad direction. Hotter, drier, with a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Winds will shift from one direction to another,” said Incident Commander Rich Harvey.

The 26-square-mile Waldo Canyon fire was 45 percent contained by Saturday afternoon. It was one of many burning across the West, including eight in Utah and a fast-growing blaze in Montana that forced residents in several small communities to leave.

About 1,200 personnel and six helicopters were fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, and authorities said they were confident they’d built good fire lines in many areas to stop flames from spreading.

“Crews made progress all around the fire,'” said Harvey, who was cautiously optimistic. “The fire potential is still very, very high. It’s extreme and explosive.”

Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house, one of almost 350 destroyed in this city 60 miles south of Denver. The victims’ names haven’t been released. Police Chief Pete Carey said Saturday afternoon the approximately 10 people who had been unaccounted for had now been located.

Police did not expect to discover other victims in the rubble.

More than 150 National Guard soldiers and airmen helped Colorado Springs police staff roadblocks and patrol streets. Carey said Saturday the presence of military personnel will allow his department to resume normal police work in the rest of the city.

About 10,000 people remain evacuated, down from more than 30,000 at the fire’s peak.

The mood was light as evacuees filtered back into an unscathed neighborhood of winding streets and split-level homes within an easy walk of the burned area.

High school counselor Pat Allen and her husband, Vic Miller, were all smiles less than five minutes after returning to their tri-level home on a quiet cul-de-sac.

“I’m just wanting to kiss the house, dance with the neighbors”, Allen said.

Their house didn’t smell of smoke. Their electricity was out for two or three days but the popsicles in their freezer didn’t melt, she said.

Around the corner, retiree Nina Apsey wandered in search of eight small, solar-powered lights that somebody had taken from her yard during the evacuation.

“I’m assuming it was vandalism,” she said.

Prized possessions still piled into the Hyundai sport-utility vehicle in her garage included caribou antlers and antelope and deer head mounts. As flames bore down, she’d also taken a small ceramic cowboy statue. Her late husband taught her how to hunt. He resembled the cowboy, she said.

She wasn’t too perturbed about her missing lights because nothing else was touched.

“If that’s the worst that happened to me, I’m blessed,” she said.

On Sunday people whose homes were burned will be allowed to tour the affected areas. Authorities said some residences would be cordoned off with police tape, and people would not be allowed beyond that point.

The home of Janine Herbertson and her 15-year-old daughter, Tessa Konik, remained unburned amid 150 others that were destroyed, said Herbertson as they ate lunch outside a Red Cross shelter.

Even so, “I’m afraid to go on the tour tomorrow and see our neighborhood in ruins,” she said.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire that broke out on June 23, and which so far has cost $8.8 million to battle. Dangerous conditions had kept them from beginning their inquiry.

Among the fires elsewhere in the West:

— Utah: Residents were sifting through the ashes of more than 50 houses destroyed by a central Utah wildfire. Homeowners were allowed to return Saturday to Indianola along Utah’s scenic Route 89. In all, eight wildfires are burning across Utah.

— Wyoming: A wind-driven wildfire in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Wyoming exploded from eight square miles to nearly 58 square miles in a single day, and an unknown number of structures have burned. About 200 structures were considered threatened.

— Idaho: A fast-moving 1,000-acre wildfire in eastern Idaho that destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings was expected to be contained Saturday. Some 1,000 residents were evacuated; it was unclear when they would be allowed back.

— Colorado: The last evacuees from the High Park Fire in northern Colorado have been allowed to return home as crews get closer to full containment. The 136-square-mile fire killed one resident and destroyed 259 houses, a state record until the fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 346 homes. In western Colorado, the 18-square-mile Pine Ridge Fire was 10 percent contained.

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