BECKY BOHRER Associated Press Writer
BILLINGS Firefighters trying to control a massive wildfire north of Hardin expected little relief from the sweltering temperatures and swirling winds that have helped the fire make dangerous runs. The Pine Ridge fire was the biggest of at least two named blazes that by today had burned on an estimated 85,000 to 90,000 acres, information officer Paula Rosenthal said. That’s an area equivalent to nearly 140 square miles. The new estimate is much as three times the combined estimate of 30,000 acres released Thursday. She said the new figure is the result of both better information and of the rapid fire growth and erratic burning that caused firefighters to pull back from the lines Thursday. “Mother Nature is largely dictating what we can do on this fire,” Rosenthal said. A team trained to manage complex wildfires and emergency situations was set to assume management of the Pine Ridge fires, she said, and additional firefighters and equipment also were expected. Elsewhere in southern Montana, a wind-stirred fire near Ashland reportedly destroyed at least one house; crews planned to work on fire line on a 50,000-acre blaze north of Pompeys Pillar, and firefighters hoped to have contained by this evening a fire west of Columbus that officials say destroyed four buildings earlier this week. About 50 structures, including 20 houses, were considered threatened by another blaze, the Horton-Hay Creek fire, which was burning south of Hathaway, in eastern Montana, and estimated at 10,000 acres, said Erin Fryer, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. The fire, which has burned in trees, sage and grass, grew from 500 acres to 8,000 acres Thursday, she said; it was considered 50 percent contained.
Winds Thursday helped push the Pine Ridge fire, which posed a potential threat to 152 structures, including 63 homes, Rosenthal said. She didn’t know how close the fire had come to any structures, but said this morning that there had been no reports of losses or damage. She didn’t know how close the fire was to Hardin, a small town about 50 miles east of Billings. Shaun Goldsberry, a Big Horn County undersheriff, said Thursday afternoon Hardin wasn’t at imminent risk. He said some rural residents were being told they may need to consider evacuating their homes, and “to keep a close eye on the fire.” A late-day posting on an incident information Web site on Thursday said the fire had come so near Hardin that an evacuation of about 1,000 residents was under way. Goldsberry said the report was untrue and it was quickly pulled from the site. Information officers said information for the posting came from the incident commander, though they didn’t know where the commander got it. A telephone message left for the sheriff or undersheriff was not immediately returned this morning. Information officer Dwayne Andrews said the winds will dictate which direction the fire may spread. Winds were calmer this morning for crews on the 50,000-acre Bundy Railroad fire, north of Pompeys Pillar, said Don Smurthwaite, a BLM spokesman. A special team assumed management of the blaze, and plans called for work constructing fire line. Firefighters had been pulled from the line for a while Thursday amid safety concerns, he said. About a dozen structures were considered threatened, some of which were homes, he said; Smurthwaite couldn’t provide more accurate figures.
Near Ashland, the Sage fire destroyed at least one house and a trailer, and prompted authorities to urge evacuation of the St. Labre area, said Bill Hedges, of the Rosebud County sheriff’s department, who said he aided the evacuation effort Thursday. The fire, just outside of Ashland, in southeast Montana, was estimated at 1,500 acres, Fryer said. She said she’d heard reports of “some structures” lost but could not immediately confirm those. She said the fire could kick up again this afternoon, under searing temperatures and low relative humidities. A separate fire, about 18 miles southeast of Ashland, was estimated at about 1,300 acres, with 10 percent containment, she said. It threatened six structures, she added. In south-central Montana, firefighters expected by day’s end to fully contain the 3,175-acre Saunders fire west of Columbus. Authorities on Thursday began to allow any evacuated residents to return to their houses, fire information officer Jack de Golia said. Officials reported a firefighter on the Saunders fire had been taken to a hospital Wednesday for dehydration. A wildfire near Billings burned on about 4,000 acres in a rural area with terrain that included prairie and gullies, Assistant Billings Fire Chief Paul Gerber said. It destroyed more than $60,000 worth of hay, he said. The Shane Ridge fire west of Joliet was considered 75 percent contained. The revised acreage nearer 810 acres than the roughly 850 acres estimated earlier likely was due to better mapping, de Golia said Thursday. The large Pine Ridge fire was among a group of wildfires, which fire officials estimated fell from 30 to 60 miles east of Billings. When a fire like the Pine Ridge blaze starts moving quickly, it essentially “preheats” grasses, trees or other fuels ahead of it, further drying them, Andrews said. “When the flames hit these fuels,” he said, “it’s explosive.”