Montana Wildfire Update For September 03, 2020
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A cold front that swept across the state yesterday fanned several fires that threatened neighborhoods and entire towns. Most evacuated residents are now back in their homes. Damage reports are still incoming. Here's a recap of Montana’s biggest fire day yet in the 2020 season.
In Lewis & Clark County, firefighters are mopping up the few remaining hotspots of an estimated 800-acre wildfire just northwest of Helena that caused brief evacuations yesterday. YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan reported on the situation:
Canyon Creek Fire Chief Sam Stigman was the initial attack incident commander. He said the fire sparked around 4:00 p.m. Wednesday at the place where Birdseye Rd crosses the train tracks north of Fort Harrison. Forty mph winds quickly blew the fire through grass and sagebrush.
“That was about as fast-moving a fire as you can get. It went from pretty much zero to its full acreage within about a half hour.”
He said crews will likely spend a couple of days putting out smoldering stumps and fence posts. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Stigman said besides a brick building at the historic Head Ranch burning, there was not any property damage beyond a few sheds, fences and house siding.
Stigman said about 100 rural firefighters were on the scene, along with personnel from the Helena Fire Department, the Montana Army National Guard and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Several helicopters were also called to the fire.
“They came out of every corner of the valley here en masse and hit it hard.” Stigman said.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said he ordered the evacuation of about 60% to 70% of the homes north of Custer Ave, south of Lincoln Rd and west of Green Meadow Drive. There was a roughly 30% compliance.
“The fire was moving so fast that they really did not have time to move animals or much of anything. They just grabbed what they could hold onto, put it in a vehicle and left.”
No livestock was lost, he said, though deputies did have to find several horses that escaped or were cut loose to avoid the fire. Residents were allowed to return home by around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Stigman said this was likely the closest a large fire has come to Helena in a few years.
“This was definitely one that would put Helena in jeopardy with the way the winds were yesterday. It was right on the edge.”
Luckily, Stigman added, the winds shifted away from Capital City at just the right time.
In Musselshell County seven miles southeast of Roundup, hundreds of people received evacuation orders Wednesday evening. Some are still currently in place for about two dozen roads in the Bull Mountains east of Highway 87.
Shortly before 4 p.m., DES said it was sending out another evacuation notice to the Hidden Springs subdivision and south of 1035 South Fattig Creek Road. The post asked people to head north to North Fattig Creek Road and exit the area.
A county Disaster and Emergency Services spokesperson said fire crews worked through the night to protect structures from the 12,000 acre Bobcat Fire. The official had not heard whether any had been lost.
Matt Ochsner, Communications Director for the Red Cross of Montana and Idaho, said the organization opened an evacuation center Wednesday at Roundup’s community center. He said it serves as a meeting point to provide people with snacks, water, information and resources.
“We put up four families last night in hotels in Roundup,” Ochsner said. “In the COVID environment, we’re really looking at the non-congregant sheltering, a little different than what things would have looked, you know, last summer. So we put people in individual hotel rooms.”
The Musselshell County Fairgrounds is available for sheltering large animals, while Homestead Vet Services is accepting small pets.
More preparations were taking place at Roundup’s St. Benedict’s Catholic Church.
“We’re fixing lunch right now and we’re preparing for 60 people,” said John Calvert.
Lay minister Calvert with the Knights of Columbus Council said they’re making food for whoever needs it.
“Not only firefighters but those who have to leave their house because there’s a fire is coming, and it’s generally families. So we make sure that they have food, and we can back up this place for them to stay if necessary.”
Calvert said they’re taking extra precautions with the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing masks and gloves and following public health guidelines.
“The pandemic affects everything that happens,” he said.
Three Bureau of Land Management engines are working to contain the fire, in addition to multiple county resources and aircraft. Winds are making the fire extremely hard to contain. South Fattig Creek Road is open to emergency traffic only.
Matt Ochsner with the Red Cross said the organization always encourages people to be prepared for wildfire emergencies.
“We always encourage people to be prepared for these emergencies. It’s important to have a plan and know the best ways out of your neighborhood quickly if you have to evacuate; and to make a kit with things like medications that you might need, cell phone chargers, emergency contact phone numbers.”
Ochsner recommends downloading the Red Cross emergency app on your phone to receive up-to-date information and alerts about emergencies in your area. It’s free and available to both iPhone and Android users.
Families who need services can call the Montana Red Cross at 800-272-6668.
Several fires exploded on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations last night, forcing evacuations in and around the town of Ashland.
Zackary Wilson, the Prevention Officer for the Northern Cheyenne Bureau of Indian Affairs Forestry and Wildland Fire Management Agency, said the Sarpy Fire has burned nearly 53,000 acres as of Thursday afternoon. It is 20% contained.
Wilson said the fire started on the Crow Reservation, near the Westmoreland’s Absaloka Mine, before it burned for several miles and reached the Northern Cheyenne reservation last night.
“So on our side we experienced 55 mile-per-hour winds. We had 94-degree temperatures yesterday and our relative humidity was at 10 percent. When you've got strong winds like that and low humidity, any fires are usually going to take off.” he said.
The Crow BIA is currently investigating the cause of the fire. Residents near the Sarpy fire in Northern Cheyenne were asked to evacuate last night. However, no structures were burned as of Thursday afternoon.
“One house, it burned all the way around, but it did not burn the house. With another one, it came within a hundred feet of it.”
The Snider and Rice fires also flared up in the night near Ashland. Ann Wickham teaches junior high math in Lame Deer, but lives in downtown Ashland.
“I'm from Georgia originally, so I'm not used to fires,” she said. “Give me a hurricane, but not a fire.”
She was looking out her window and saw red and blue lights from Rosebud County patrol cars, but did not know what was happening. So Wickham called the sheriff.
“I have nine dogs because I help with a rescue,” she said. “So getting nine dogs out of here is an issue. I can't just take me somewhere. When they said evacuate, I started loading them up.”
Several Ashland residents later complained on social media that they were never told to evacuate. After calling about the order, Wickham drove eight of her rescue dogs to her vet in Forsyth. She went back for the last dog who had refused to cooperate.
“And then when I came back from Forsyth, I could see all the red in the horizon where it was burning,” Wickham said. “It was a pretty long stretch, it was kind of freaky.”
By then it was past midnight and the wind had died down, so Wickham was able to spend the night at home. As of Thursday evening, the evacuation notices were lifted. Wickham is teaching from home, and like everyone in the area, she is keeping an eye on the smoke.
In Garfield County, Jordan’s 400 residents fled their town as the human-caused, wind-driven Huff Fire bore down Wednesday afternoon.
“So those flames, when you think of the traditional Laura Engels Wilder prairie fire moving quickly through grass, that's exactly what was experienced out here,” Anne Miller, Garfield County’s disaster and emergency services coordinator, said.
She spent Wednesday afternoon helping direct incoming fire engines, road graders and volunteer farm equipment through a rapid series of Facebook posts that now memorialize first responders’ swift efforts to steer the fast moving grass fire around town.
Residents at the county’s nursing home were sent to Miles City to wait out the fire, and nurses from Circle met them there for extra care. McCone Electric cut power to Jordan.
Superintendent of Jordan Public Schools Nate Olson said the district was aware of the fire throughout the day, but then the situation changed quickly right before school was about to get out.
"Of course we were aware of the fire throughout the day, and as the smoke began getting worse and worse we were right at the end of the school day. At about 3:30 I had a parent come into the building and say that the fire had reached the edge of town and that it was coming down on us quickly. So, I made the call to get the kids out of the building. So we evacuated the building."
Olson said it took about 6-8 minutes to get the district's 154 students onto the busses lined up outside of the school. Kids who could safely return home were dropped off and those who could not go home were picked up by family and friends.
A number of the district’s students who were impacted by the fire stayed home from school Thursday, Olson said.
Evacuation orders lifted after about three hours, enough time for DES Coordinator Miller to feel the weight of her worst nightmare: losing the town of Jordan, Montana.
“It was a wild moment but an emotional one to come up over the hill, finally, as I did reach town, and be able to see all the buildings standing,” she said.
Miller said the fire came within inches of some homes, which had been covered with retardant. While no primary homes were lost, Miller said the hay, sheep and equipment that made up some of her neighbors’ livelihoods are now gone.
“The fire managed to take out all four rows of their hay bales. It did miss their homes. At this time I'm not aware of any primary residence that were lost. this afternoon we'll be traveling out and verifying physically what few secondary homes were lost. The rest we are looking at total demolition of a lot of sheds, shops, ranch corrals, equipment, kind of all over this side of the county."
The Huff Fire burned an estimated 35,000 acres in all. Miller said it started on private agricultural land Wednesday morning when a landowner initiated a burn project despite critical fire conditions. The Sheriff’s Office expressed concern to the landowner about fire danger, she said, and readied a page to rally engines in case the fire escaped the property.
Miller said permission for brush burning would have been denied the morning the fire started.
She said the Huff Fire is a reminder that critical fire weather means something. It’s also a reminder that even in 2020, a year of divisive political battles and a raging public health crisis, neighbors can count on each other.
She said the main focus Thursday was holding containment lines, protecting structures and dousing any flareups within the fire’s interior. In the long term, Miller knows some families will need help recovering from financial losses and the stress of incident.
In Gallatin County, a fire located north of Bozeman scorched about 300 acres of wheat stubble, dry grass and dead cottonwood trees Wednesday evening.
Central Valley Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said crews responded to a field east of Springhill Rd at around 4:30 p.m., knocking down the fire in about four hours. No one was injured and no buildings burned down, although Lindroth said a few structures were in danger.
“We actually had two homes and a large barn that were directly in the path and had to be actively defended,” he said.
About 10 acres of unharvested grain were lost.
The fire sparked when some straw got stuck in the muffler of a grain truck while it was out harvesting, Lindroth said. Six local fire departments, about 80 firefighters and a helicopter worked to contain the blaze.
Lindroth said firefighters were holding the fire to about 200 acres when 25 mph winds carried an ember several hundred yards away. That started a second fire that burned another 100 acres.
A crew patrolled the site Thursday looking for hotspots that might have cropped up, according to Lindroth. He said that although the wind has died down, the weather is still worrisome.
“It’s still hot and dry with low relative humidity, so conditions are ripe for another fire."
Lindroth urged that people need to be careful with campfires and observe burn bans, especially over the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Thursday that it will pay 75% of the state’s eligible firefighting costs incurred by the Huff Fire burning in Garfield County, the Bobcat Fire burning in Musselshell and Yellowstone counties and the Snider and Rice fires burning in Rosebud County