ROUDUP — Firefighters battling an 18,700-acre wildfire south of Roundup got a break in the weather Thursday, while residents forced to leave their homes grew increasingly frustrated that they aren't allowed to return to see if they have anything left.
Officials said the fire has burned dozens of residences since it was reported on Tuesday, though a precise tally was not available. Fire officials planned to survey the area Thursday.
After the flames jumped its southern perimeter on Wednesday, firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading significantly thanks in part to cooler temperatures and dying winds. Fire officials expected the break in the weather to last a couple of days before another front arrives Sunday or Monday.
Resident Michelle Felts was anxious to return home after spending Tuesday night in her car and Wednesday in a hotel. Law enforcement officers at roadblocks have prevented her return, and she said she received no information at the emergency operations center.
"I don't know where to go from here. I want to go home," Felts said.
A community meeting was set for noon Wednesday at St. Benedict's Catholic Church in Roundup.
Musselshell County Sheriff Woodrow Weitzeil said Thursday it was not clear whether anybody is missing after he told the Billings Gazette the day before that one person was unaccounted for.
To the southeast, near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, milder weather allowed firefighters to keep the 110,000-acre Ash Creek fire in check overnight.
"It didn't expand significantly last night," Rosebud County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Carol Raymond told the Gazette. "It kind of laid down nicely. We had some good weather and got quite a bit accomplished."
The Ash Creek fire has burned 18 homes, including 11 on the reservation.
Just north of Helena, Lewis and Clark Sheriff Leo Dutton said the remaining residents forced to leave homes threatened by the 1,851-acre Corral fire would be allowed to return, but cautioned them to have a suitcase ready and be prepared to leave again at a moment's notice.
The fire, which has burned four homes, was 40 percent contained and crews were working to keep it from spreading west and east. Fire officials sounded a note of cautious optimism.
"I'm just glad it's over — I hope," West Helena Valley Fire Chief Jerry Shepherd said.
The order meant that Guus Schippers, a Dutch national who has lived in the Helena Valley for the past 11 years, could move out of a hotel and return to his 15-acre property with his wife and dogs for the first time since Monday. He said the fire was about a half-mile away from his house when he got the call to evacuate Monday.
"You panic. You say, 'Oh my God, what do I have to take,' and then you forget half of it," Schippers said.
He and his neighbor, Katy Norris, said they both had hundreds of trees, many of them killed by mountain pine beetles, recently removed from their land thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Norris' property was treated just eight weeks ago.
"It really saved our properties," she said, pointing to an aerial photo on her phone where a line of charred trees ended near her land. "This was all beetle kill. From here to my house was nothing but dead trees."
Near the Madison River northeast of Ennis, the 14,770-acre Bear Trap fire was 12 percent contained after burning three structures as of Wednesday night. The wind had died down some and traffic was again allowed on Highway 84.
Southeast of Whitehall, fire crews also were expecting better weather as they build fire lines around the 4,700-acre Pony fire. Eighty homes were threatened by that fire.