By Patrick Winderl and Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Several grass fires along a 4-mile stretch north of U.S. Highway 2 Wednesday evening threatened several houses and the Big Red Barn before being contained by area fire crews and volunteers.
The fire started on railroad tracks, Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said today, adding that the exact cause has not been determined.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said the railroad is investigating the cause of the fires.
"We did have two trains in the area," he said. "BNSF is continuing to investigate."
BNSF temporarily closed that section of track while crews combated the blazes, Melonas said.
No buildings were burned and no injuries were reported as a result of the fires, Sheppard said.
"There were some houses we thought initially may be threatened," he said, adding that the fires were contained before any structures were damaged. Sheppard said emergency dispatch received a call reporting three separate fires shortly before 5 p.m. Havre dispatched 10 firefighters as well as three wildland firetrucks, a larger fire engine and a water tender, he said.
Havre forces were joined by fire crews from the Bear Paw, Wildhorse, Kremlin, Gildford, and St. Joe volunteer departments as well as several small crews of BNSF workers, Sheppard said. The Hill County Road Department, Havre Public Works Department and several local construction companies also brought water trucks to the fires.
"I know there were numerous others out there," Sheppard said. "We greatly appreciated their assistance."
The fires were spread between the Big Red Barn about six miles west of Havre to Bear Paw Veterinary Service just north of Beaver Creek Golf Course. Wind drove the flames east, down a hillside and into a cottonwood-studded area north of Beaver Creek across the highway from the golf course, Sheppard said.
"Once it got into these trees along Beaver Creek it made it a lot harder to put out," he said.
Havre firefighter Al Forsman said that when the fire reached the trees, the flames leapt to 30 to 40 feet high.
Sheppard said the fire was under control about 7 p.m., but that firefighters remained at the site to make sure it did not flare up again. The last crew returned to the Havre fire station at midnight.
Flames came within several dozen feet of some houses. On the hill west of the cottonwoods where the fire had already passed and left a field of black, charred stubble, homeowner Robert Ito walked along a fence line near his home covering up hot spots with dirt.
Ito said he was in town about 5 p.m. when he saw the smoke, and rushed to the site because he was afraid the fire might be near his home.
"So we dashed over here as the fire was just coming up the hill," said Ito, who said it appeared the fire came from the railroad tracks to the southwest of his property.
"I was afraid the fire was going to jump over that road," Ito said of the gravel road just south of his house.
At the westernmost fire, crews of BNSF workers used rakes and shovels along the tracks to extinguish smoldering railroad ties and grass.
BNSF assistant roadmaster Scott Smith, surveying a crew there, said about six BNSF crews of six people each had been sent to fight the fire.
A number of railroad ties stacked along the tracks caught fire and burned, volunteer firefighter Russell Gregoire said today.
Melonas said about 900 new ties were damaged, but that the dollar value had not been determined.
Gregoire and another volunteer from the Bear Paw Fire District were dispatched to respond to a fire along U.S. Highway 87 about 5:30 p.m. That fire turned out to be nonexistent, so the pair assisted the Kremlin fire crew on the blaze near the Big Red Barn, he said.
"When we got there, Kremlin basically had it completely contained and were doing mop-up work," he said. The other blazes further east were visible from the Kremlin fire, he added.
The Kremlin Fire Department had seven firefighters and two vehicles working the blaze, which was contained quickly, volunteer firefighter Don Soper said. He said the largest of the fires was the one near Bear Paw Veterinary Service.
Part of a barley field owned by farmer Charlie was destroyed by flames.
"When you live by the railroad tracks, it happens a lot," he said today. "It burned about half of our field off, about 80 acres. This is a significant loss. We'll have to pursue this one."
Inman and his family were harvesting when the fires broke out. He attempted to control a blaze in his field with a 1,600-gallon water truck. Despite his efforts, the fire would not have been controlled without the assistance of the Kremlin Fire Department, he said.
"We went until we were out of water," he said. "We wouldn't have had enough water without them. The Kremlin Fire Department is our savior. They did real good."
Many other people selflessly offered assistance with the fire, he added.
"The whole community helped us," Inman said. "Eight or 10 farmers showed up with their equipment, some from 20 miles away. We had people stop on the road and help out or want to help out. People are awfully good about that."
Meanwhile, a wreck that occurred during a blaze near the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and 82nd Avenue West was not caused by fire and resulted in no injuries, said Montana Highway Patrol officer Sam Goodemoot.
The fires were accompanied by record high temperatures Monday. Havre reached 105 degrees, shattering the previous record of 102, set in 1931 and tied in 1936. Billings was even hotter, with temperatures reaching 107 degrees.
Sheppard said the fire danger in the region is very high due to the high temperatures and lack of moisture in plant life. The grass and brush that was stimulated by rainfall earlier this year have since dried out, he said.
A countywide burn ban was imposed last Thursday, and will soon be supplemented by a larger one imposed by a federal agency.
According to the press release from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Stage One fire restrictions will go into effect on all federal, state and private lands in Liberty, Hill, Blaine, Phillips, Valley, Daniels, Sheridan, Roosevelt, Chouteau, Judith Basin, Fergus, Petroleum, Wheatland and Golden Valley counties beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
Stage 1 restrictions went into effect for the entire Lewis and Clark National Forest on Monday.
Under Stage 1, the following acts are prohibited: building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire, except within a developed recreation site, and smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building.
In Hill County, no campfires are permitted in Beaver Creek Park. Violators can face a $500 fine.