SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer HELENA
Fire crews hoped to gain ground Thursday on 13 large wildfires burning across Montana in advance of gusty, erratic winds and higher temperatures forecast for the weekend. In northwestern Montana, nearly 500 firefighters were digging lines and clearing brush to protect the 1,500 homes, 100 businesses and 1,500 outbuildings and other structures threatened by a wildfire less than two miles from the summer resort town of Seeley Lake. “You’re seeing a lot of logs being hauled down the road on big trucks as they’re removing some of those fuels,” said Jennifer Yuhas, fire information officer. Ten air tankers and seven helicopters were dropping water on the blaze, and crews were working to protect threatened power lines and substations, she said. The fire has burned 18,600 acres, or more than 29 square miles, since it started Aug. 3 and was estimated to be 10 percent contained. Officials have said it could burn until mid-September, when more substantial rain is likely. One house has been destroyed and another damaged. Thursday night, fire official lifted the evacuation order for all homes and businesses east of state Highway 83, fire information officer Tom Kempton said. The area includes about 300 homes. Residents of about 375 homes remained evacuated. Kempton said residents in the area east of the highway must be ready to leave again within 90 minutes if ordered to do so. “The continuing weather forecast is for ... dry and dangerous weather, so there still might be a need to immediately evacuate the area,” Kempton said, adding that procedures for alerting residents about new evacuations would be discussed at community meetings Thursday night. Highway 83 remained restricted to nonresidents from Clearwater Junction to Condon, he said. Work Thursday afternoon included “single-tree torching” and focused on the east side of the fire, in the area closest to Seeley Lake, Kempton said. “Fire activity has not diminished, although weather did cooperate today,” he said. There has been one injury on the Jocko Lakes fire so far: A tree limb fell and hit a firefighter on the head, causing a laceration. The firefighter was treated and released and has returned to work, Kempton said. Fire growth was minimal on other fires burning in the state, although thunderstorms expected in some areas Thursday afternoon had the potential to bring dry lightning and gusty wind. West of Darby, the 580-acre Tin Cup fire became the nation’s No. 1 firefighting priority Thursday because of its proximity to 100 homes and the southwestern Montana community, said Nan Christianson, fire information officer. About 40 homes were evacuated, and residents of another 47 residences were on standby to leave. The fire was 60 percent contained, but was burning aggressively and could spread quickly, fire officials said. Crews “tried to hit it as hard as possible” Thursday in anticipation of bad weather, fire information officer Kelly Andersson said. Lightning and increased wind were expected Thursday night. Firefighters focused on reinforcing and building new line on the fire’s west side, where several active hot spots were burning, she said. Also Thursday, a member of one of the out-of-state hot shot crews battling the fire fractured his lower leg and suffered some bumps and scrapes after falling about 20 feet in steep terrain. “He was working on a rock outcrop, and it’s just terribly steep up in some of those areas,” Andersson said. “He was coming back down off the rock outcrop, and he came across a loose area and took a dive.” The firefighter was taken by ambulance to a nearby medical facility, where his leg was put in a brace. He was back at the fire camp Thursday evening but was planning to go home Friday, she said. Another firefighter strained his back Thursday but did not require hospitalization. That firefighter also will return home, Andersson said. Only one other injury has been reported on the Tin Cup fire a firefighter twisted his ankle earlier in the week but went right back to work, she said. Evacuation orders for two subdivisions near a fire southeast of Missoula were canceled Wednesday evening as fire activity subsided. The blaze is part of the Sawmill Complex, which has burned 19,880 acres, or 31 square miles, in the Lolo and Beaverhead-Deer Lodge national forests. “We’re feeling really good about things,” said Karen Semple, fire information officer. “That’s why we recommended to the sheriff that he lift that mandatory evacuation order. We really feel that the residents will be safe, and that’s the bottom line on this.” The state’s largest wildfire, the Chippy Creek fire north of Plains, was estimated at 56,365 acres, or 88 square miles, Thursday, and residents of about 50 rural homes were still displaced. More than 506 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, which was 10 percent contained, fire information officer Bernie Pineda said. Crews made a lot of progress Thursday on the fire’s southeast corner, he said. “It was almost a boring day, but that’s good for us,” Pineda said Thursday night. “The wind was not a problem today not like yesterday, when we were on pins and needles. Tomorrow’s weather looks like it’s going to be another red flag warning, so we’re just gonna have to be prepared and ride out the storm.” West of Whitefish, the Brush Creek fire grew about 200 acres to 22,928 acres, or about 36 square miles. Fire activity remained moderate Thursday, with the blaze staying within established lines, fire officials said.