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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

24,000 Acre Robertson Draw Fire Is Human Caused, Sheriff Says

A photo of the Robertson Draw Fire posted the morning of June 16, 2021.

The Robertson Draw Fire burning 24,273 acres south of Red Lodge has been identified as human caused, according to the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office. The fire is 0% contained.

Sheriff Josh McQuillen says his office is investigating with the U.S. Forest Service. They’ve identified a suspect and been in contact, but that person is not in custody.

McQuillen also said at a community meeting Wednesday night that the fire has burned eight major structures and 13 outbuildings. He says the Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue checked in on 570 homes and made contact with nearly 250 people on Tuesday as the fire exploded in size and forced evacuations for an area spanning south of Highway 308 from Red Lodge to Highway 72 down to the Wyoming border.

An evacuation order remains in place for North and South Grove Creek, Gold Creek, Ruby Creek and Robertson Draw east to Highway 72. Evacuation orders for all other areas lifted Wednesday night, but residents are advised to be vigilant.

All the Custer Gallatin National Forest System lands south of Point of Rocks in the Rock Creek drainage are closed under a Forest Closure Order. This includes trailheads, campgrounds, dispersed camping areas, and the USDA Forest Service Recreation Residences in Corral Creek, Spring Creek, Snow Creek, and Sheep Creek. This is in addition to the Closure Area encompassing the Line Creek Plateau. The Beartooth Highway (US Hwy 212) remains open.

A morning update posted to InciWeb shows the fire has grown about 3,000 acres since Tuesday.

Ken Coffman, district ranger for the Beartooth Ranger District of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said at Wednesday’s public meeting crews are making progress but cautioned bringing the fire under control will take time.

“We’re going to be living with this fire for at best several more weeks, if not for several more months, because of the size of the fire, the terrain and fuel that it’s in,” Coffman said. “It’s going to be a while.”

On Wednesday, moderated weather conditions allowed fire crews to work on the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern sides of the fire. Air tanker water and retardant drops were conducted along the northwest side of Mt. Maurice to check fire spread. Aircraft were also used on the south side to check fire spread. The fire remained active along portions of the northern edge and in the timbered areas south of Mt. Maurice.

A Type 2 Incident Management Team trained to oversee complex, long-term responses to wildland fires assumed command of the fire at 7 p.m. Wednesday. About 160 personnel are assigned to the fire, with more incoming. Firefighters continue to focus their efforts on structure protection and are now turning their attention to building containment lines.

A post to InciWeb lays out Thursday’s planned actions: “Fire crews will work along the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern sides of the fire to continue to tie in fire lines where needed, mop up pockets of heat and any areas of fire located around private structures. On the south side of the fire crews will continue to look for opportunities to build fire line. On the northwest side of the fire near Mt. Maurice the Division Supervisor and operations personnel will begin scouting the fire area and develop a strategy for suppression. A structure protection group has been organized and will be working on structure assessments and planning. Additional fire crews have been ordered and will be arriving. Aerial resources will continue to drop water or retardant as needed based on fire activity.”

Red Lodge Fire Rescue Chief Tom Kuntz praised the mix of local teams that first responded to the fire Sunday. He said there was no way to get the fire out on the first or second day, and that the conditions he’s seeing are more akin to what’s normally seen in August, not June.

“The majority of the fire looks incredible and I'm really proud of the team that has worked on this and what they're doing to hand off to this Type 2 team to have them hopefully finish it up for us.”

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Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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