SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer HELENA
Smoke from wildfires clogged the air in more than a dozen cities in the state Monday, dropping ash in some and prompting air quality alerts from Missoula to Baker. The air was rated unhealthy Monday in Butte, Bozeman, Dillon, Hamilton, Helena, Livingston and Missoula. State Department of Environmental Quality officials urged residents to limit their exposure, and recommended that children, the elderly and those with health problems stay indoors. Lesser warnings were posted in 10 other cities across the state. Little relief was in sight, with continued "hot and stagnant" conditions in the forecast, said John Coefield, a state meteorologist. "This will help reduce the fire activity levels, but the smoke impacts will continue to be a problem for at least the next few days," he said. "Smoke levels will be intermittently bad with some clearing as the plumes move around." A brief smoke clearing later Monday was expected to kick up several of the 19 large fires burning in the state. Fire crews mopped up near a Seeley Lake-area subdivision they battled to save a day earlier in anticipation of the weather change. Crews struggled to save about 10 homes there after the 21,270- acre Jocko Lakes fire jumped containment lines. Helicopters making water drops were ineffective in controlling the spot fires as they spread toward the Eagle Point subdivision. Firefighters "foamed structures and burned out vegetation around them," said Tom Kempton, fire information officer. "They backed away to staging areas during the height of the fire." Residents of about 300 homes were reevacuated Sunday because of the flareup, and remained out of their homes Monday. Montana 83 between Condon and Clearwater Junction also was still closed. "Trying to control the areas (of the fire) that are closest to the populated areas has been a challenge," Kempton said. At about 3 p.m. Monday, the fire made a "major run" on its northern edge, in the north fork of Placid Creek, he said. Crews pulled back to staging areas and planned to reassessed the situation Monday night. "We're trying to get an idea whether the night crews will be able to go in there," Kempton said. "It's been difficult to assess because of the smoke." Winds were normal Monday about 10 mph but a dramatic weather change could be on the horizon, he said. The National Weather Service says western Montana could see windy conditions and strong to severe thunderstorms Thursday. About 815 people were assigned to the blaze Monday night, and containment was estimated at 9 percent. South of Livingston, the Wicked Creek fire has burned more than 10,000 acres. Officials have evacuated 34 homes and six cabins, the Park County sheriff's office said. Crews were waiting until the smoke cleared to better map the perimeter of the blaze, sparked by lightning late Thursday. A specialized "Type 1" management team was expected to arrive Monday afternoon, said fire information officer Marna Daley. About seven miles to the east, the Hicks Park fire has burned about 1,500 acres south of Big Timber, leading to the evacuation of about 30 homes, four church camps and a guest ranch south of the Fourmile cabin to the head of the Main Boulder River drainage. Many of those residents were forced to evacuate last year in the midst of the Derby and Jungle fires. Fire officials said the area on the main Boulder between Natural Bridge and Clydehurst remains under a preevacuation notice. Crews dropped water and retardant on the blaze Monday, stemming the fire's growth, said Carlos Trevino, the initial attack incident commander. The Wicked Creek and Hicks Park fires were both burning in heavy timber, Daley said. West of Wisdom, a wildfire sparked by lightning last week ballooned to more than 2,500 acres and was threatening structures in the Big Hole Valley, said Arlee Staley, fire information officer. Evacuation notices had been issued, and the fire east of Gibbons Pass was expected to reach the valley floor as early as Monday, she said. Staley did not immediately know how many residences were evacuated in the path of the Rat Creek fire. In eastern Montana, weekend thunderstorms sparked nearly 20 fires in Custer, Powder River and Rosebud counties, The Billings Gazette newspaper reported. The largest of those blazes, the Trail Creek fire about 50 miles southwest of Broadus, has blackened 14,000 acres in Montana and Wyoming. Fire officials say it has destroyed two structures: a barn and a residence thought to be a mobile home. The only other loss reported Monday evening was an abandoned school house that burned in the Road Creek fire 15 miles northwest of Broadus. A helicopter crew flew over the blaze Monday evening and estimated it was 11,000 acres, reducing an earlier estimate of 37,000 acres. U. S. 212 was closed between Broadus and Ashland, but had reopened by Monday afternoon. The Lost fire, 25 miles south of Ashland, grew to at least 2,000 acres and threatened Otter, a community of 700 on state Highway 484 near the Wyoming border. "The country's pretty tough that it's in, and we're really focusing on point protection, making sure we're protecting structures and outbuildings," said Dave Overcast with the BLM in Miles City.