Critical Fire Conditions Expected Across Montana

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Critical fire conditions were expected Tuesday afternoon in central and southeastern Montana where wildfires already have burned hundreds of square miles.

Temperatures could reach up to 105 degrees in the region, with low humidity and wind gusts up to 45 mph, said National Weather Service forecaster Todd Chambers.

Those red flag conditions could present a problem for firefighters battling the erratic Ash Creek Fire, which has jumped U.S. Highway 212 and triggered evacuations between Broadus and Ashland.

Officials estimated the 186,800-acre fire was 55 percent contained. The fire has burned 16 residences and 22 outbuildings and was threatening more homes

Chambers said the shift in weather will start with dry winds out of the southwest that will lower humidity levels and make the landscape more fire-prone. Behind that will come gusting winds out of the northwest that could cause fires to abruptly shift directions.

“The combination makes for some dangerous fire conditions,” Chambers said. “They’re fighting it from one direction then the wind shifts and they have to get out of the way.”

The most active part of the fire is burning thick, largely-inaccessible timber on the Custer National Forest. That’s led firefighters to steer clear of the dangerous forward edge of the blaze, said fire information officer Kathy Bushnell.

But Bushnell said the fire could soon break through the eastern edge of the forest and reach private lands covered with grasses, which don’t burn as hot as the ponderosa pines in the forest. That could allow firefighters to tackle the fire more directly, she said.

Also bracing for stiff winds were firefighters working the Horse Creek fire south of Hysham. The 6,100-acre fire ignited Sunday and quickly spread through sparsely populated areas, threatening a natural gas pipeline and a pair of 500-kilovolt transmission lines owned by NorthWestern Energy.

New fires are also a worry. Chambers said 1,000 lightning strikes were reported over south-central and southeastern Montana overnight Tuesday. While many came in areas that were also doused with rain, some may have sparked fires that could quickly grow with the forecast winds.

On the eve of the July 4 holiday, all or parts of two dozen Montana counties are under some kind of fire restriction.

Most have imposed Stage I restrictions, which prohibit campfires, charcoal grills and smoking outside of a building or vehicle. All or parts of eight counties are under Stage II restrictions, which also limits the use of engine-powered equipment, explosives and firearms.

In addition to the fire restrictions, state officials estimate that about a dozen counties in extremely hazardous areas have banned private citizens from using fireworks as long as the fire danger exists. But there has been no word of cancellations for any of the major public fireworks displays scheduled across the state.

Jeff Douglass, a fireworks stand owner in East Helena and an instructor at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, had been advocating to lift the restrictions until he learned that the county is at 26 percent of average rainfall levels and that red-flag conditions were expected in the area.

“I heard the report and it was worse than I thought. I can’t in good conscience say we should still have fireworks,” Douglass told the Independent Record.

So far in 2012, more than 300 fires have burned a combined 335,000 acres across Montana. That’s more than 500 square miles.

The cost to date for fighting the fires tops $12.4 million.

The weather service says red-flag conditions are also expected for southwestern Montana.

Cooler weather early in the week allowed firefighters to make significant gains on several fires.

Authorities say the 22,000-acre Dahl fire in Musselshell County is 95 percent contained after burning 73 homes and 150 other buildings.

Progress was also made on the 4,800 Pony fire west of Norris, reported to be 45 percent contained, and the 3,100-acre Bad Horse fire near Crow Agency, at 70 percent contained.

The Coal Seam fire near Busby, Hawk Creek fire near Musselshell and Antelope Lane fire near Whitehall were all fully contained, officials said.