HELENA . (AP) — Reinforcements arrived in western Montana as dry thunderstorms and high wind gusts forecast for Thursday made it tougher to predict which way a pair of wildfires threatening 1,200 homes would turn.
Since topping the nation's priority list Wednesday, the number of people assigned to the two fires west of the town of Lolo has jumped from 260 to 508, and air and engine support has also increased. That includes Montana National Guard helicopter crews and troops assigned to relieve local authorities at roadblocks.
"When you get bumped up to that level, you get a lot more priority in resources," said fire information officer Mike Cole.
The National Interagency Fire Center's priority list is based on factors such as a fire's condition, the existing resources, weather and the threat to properties, among other factors, he said.
Cooperative weather and increased air support helped slow the Lolo Creek Complex's spread on Wednesday. That allowed crews to conduct burnout operations around the most threatened homes and begin digging a fire line from U.S. Highway 12 up the slope to the fire.
The fires had burned 9,500 acres, or nearly 15 square miles, by Thursday morning.
Five homes were burned on Monday, but none have been lost since then. The edge of the fire was about a mile away from the nearest homes on Sleeman Gulch.
Highway 12, a commercial route leading from Montana to Idaho, remained closed to traffic.
Many of the estimated 650 people who attended a public information meeting Wednesday night wanted to know when the highway would reopen, but fire officials could not give them a definitive answer.
Most homes in the area have been evacuated, though some residents have decided to stay. They are allowed to do so if there are no children, elderly or disabled people in the home, Cole said.
The temporary break in the weather may be over, with dry thunderstorms and erratic winds gusting up to 50 mph forecast to enter the area. Lightning strikes could start more fires in the dry conditions, though some precipitation was expected to move in late in the day and aid firefighters by increasing humidity levels.
"Weather's an amazing factor. You never know what's going to happen until it happens," Cole said.
In southern Montana, five miles south of Red Lodge, a national Type 2 incident management team was taking over firefighting operations for the Rock Creek Fire, which was the No. 2 priority fire in the nation Wednesday.
The fire had burned 800 acres by Thursday morning near U.S. Highway 212, forcing the closure of the popular route from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.
Travelers to Yellowstone were being redirected to the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, the Billings Gazette reported.
Northeastern winds kept the fire away from many residences on the east side of the highway and lining the canyon's bottom on Wednesday, the newspaper reported.
South of Livingston, a complex of fires burning in and around the Gallatin National Forest had burned a combined 17 square miles and 5 percent contained by Thursday morning.
Pre-evacuation notices have been issued to homeowners in the Tom Miner Basin area, and fire officials have requested additional resources for the 368 people already assigned to the fires.