August 21, 2013 |

Officials put homes destroyed by Lolo fires at 4

LOLO (AP) — Fires have burned at least four homes so far in western Montana and high temperatures and increasing winds made the blazes likely to keep spreading, a state fire official said Tuesday.

AP Photo/Missoulian, Kurt Wilson
Traffic on U.S. Highway 12 near Lolo retreats to safety from the West Fork II fire that grew from less than 100 acres Monday morning to about 3,500 acres and burned on both sides of the highway. Residents had just minutes to evacuate in front of the fast-moving fire.

The two fires west of Lolo had been holding most of the day at nearly 8 square miles burned, but the wind speed started picking up Tuesday afternoon, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire spokeswoman Crystal Beckman said. By evening, the Lolo Creek complex of fires had burned an estimated 7,500 acres — roughly 12 square miles — and prompted new evacuations, Montana Public Radio and KECI-TV reported.

The four homes destroyed in the Lolo Creek complex of fires does not include additional structures that also may have burned, but fire officials were not able to verify a total number, Beckman said.

One hotshot crew, five hand crews, a helicopter and 10 engines and other heavy equipment were battling the fires. Officials ordered additional resources and were looking to borrow more where they can.

"The fires in Idaho, California and Washington have put a strain on the resources," Beckman said.

The Lolo fires may be bumped up in priority when a national Type 1 emergency team takes over management on Wednesday morning, she said.

With soaring temperatures and low humidity, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency for 31 counties across western, northern and southeastern Montana.

The rapidly spreading fires west of Lolo are a game changer that promises to stretch resources thin, Bullock told the Missoulian in a story published Tuesday.

Additional state resources are needed to reinforce the state's initial attack capabilities, Bullock's order said, and the declaration allows the use of National Guard resources ranging from personnel to helicopters.

Those resources will likely be needed, as fire officials said the weather forecast did not bode well.

"Predicted weather over the next several days will continue to challenge firefighters," fire information officer Cindy Super said. "Heavy smoke will impact air operations, and the potential for fire growth is very high."

Wind gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph pushed the two lightning-caused fires near Lolo.

Voluntary evacuations were recommended for residents from Bear Creek Road to Sleeman Road, Beckman said. It was not immediately clear how many houses are in that area.

By Tuesday night, evacuations had spread to Sleeman Creek Road, Montana Public Radio and KECI-TV reported.

U.S. Highway 12 was closed to all except residents and emergency personnel from Lolo to the Idaho line. Officers were stopping vehicles and checking identifications, allowing residents through to check their property or help neighbors.

No injuries were reported. A shelter was established at Christ the King Church in Missoula.

The Missoula County Sheriff's Office said a man was found safe after being reported missing while berry picking near Lolo Creek on Monday just before the fire spread to the area.

Mark Hannah, 60, became disoriented and was separated from a friend as the two headed back because of the thickening smoke, sheriff's spokeswoman Paige Pavalone said.

At least 19 notable fires were burning across the state on Tuesday, according to fire officials.

A new fire forced the closure of a portion of U.S. Highway 212 about 5 miles south of Red Lodge and led to the evacuations of three homes in the Rock Creek area, fire officials said.

The fire was burning about 200 acres along the highway near the Rock Creek Resort. The road, also known as the Beartooth Highway, connects Yellowstone National Park and Red Lodge over the 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass.

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