MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
An 800-acre wildfire that destroyed two homes in a subdivision east of here calmed down overnight, but fire officials expected more challenges today as a red-flag warning denoting critical fire conditions entered its fourth day. Such warnings mean low relative humidities and gusty winds are expected, said Matt Solum, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings. “The combination of those two can create explosive fire potential,” he said. Two homes have been destroyed since the blaze erupted Sunday afternoon. Wind gusts up to 38 mph and difficult terrain made the Ford fire hard to control Monday, and the blaze grew to an estimated 804 acres by Monday night . I t was 10 percent contained. The fire prompted evacuation orders for some 300 homes in the Emerald Hills subdivision in unincorporated Lockwood and evacuations were still in effect today. Fire officials hoped to hold the blaze at the top of two ridge lines within the subdivision, on the fire’s north and east flanks. But more wind forecast into today promised to make that a difficult task. “Right now, we’re holding it at bay,” Lockwood Fire Chief William Rash said Monday evening. “We’ l l see what happens tomorrow.” Today’s forecast called for southwest winds of 5 to 15 mph in the morning and west winds of 15 to 25 mph in the afternoon, Solum said. If the fire flares up again, officials said they would try to bring in heavy air tankers to support the two ground crews that started working the blaze Monday afternoon. The Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal money to help the state pay for firefighting costs, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer toured the fire Monday afternoon. Several outbuildings and vehicles also were lost in the fire. But authorities credited crews with saving about 50 homes that otherwise would have burned. “There’s some lucky people up here,” said Emerald Hills homeowner Pete Gannon, whose unburned house was lef t surrounded by charred trees and the smoldering remains of two of his barns. As Gannon spoke, he jabbed with a shovel at some embers from one of the barns he lost. “I’ll take losing that any day,” he said Monday evening. In western Montana, fire officials said “good progress” was made Monday along the west and east flanks of the Black Cat fire northwest of Missoula. Up to 100 homes were still evacuated because of the blaze, which grew to 11,515 acres Monday night and was 30 percent contained. Three mobile homes near Frenchtown have been lost in that fire. Monday afternoon, crews continued to mop up and hold the line on the lower end of Mill Creek near Spring Hill Road, and burn out pockets of unburned vegetation along the west side of U.S. 93 near Marent Trestle. On the north and northeast flanks of the blaze, crews constructed line using existing roads and burning out as needed, fire officials said. In the Bitterroot Valley, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office downgraded the status of some evacuation orders Monday to pre-evacuat ion alert . The affected homes were along West Fork Road, from just south of the Trapper Creek Job Corps Center to Lloyd Creek. Fire officials said cooler temperatures, reduced winds and higher relative humidity have resulted in “significantly reduced fire behavior” on the Rombo Mountain fire, 18 miles south of Conner. That fire has burned about 20,300 acres since it was started by lightning on July 31. It was 15 percent contained Monday night. Near the town of Seeley Lake, the Jocko Lakes fire was estimated at 34,810 acres, or 54 square miles, and was 28 percent contained Monday night. On Sunday afternoon, wind pushed the blaze toward Placid Lake, prompting authorities to issue an evacuation order, said Pa u l S l e n kamp , a f i r e information officer. He did not know how many homes were involved. One home has been destroyed in that fire, and several others damaged. The Montana Department of Fish, Wi ldl i fe and Parks announced Monday it has lifted the recreational-use closure at Lake Inez, just off Montana 83 north of Seeley Lake. The lake has been closed since Aug. 14 because of aircraft use in firefighting efforts. Southeast of Missoula, 213 cabins and homes in the path of a group of fires burning in three national forests remained evacuated. Cooler temperatures and higher humidities were forecast early this week. The fires are part of the Sawmill complex, which has burned 54,100 acres, or more than 84 square miles, and was 10 percent contained.