Major Montana fires ease but lightning sparks more
BILLINGS — Fire crews working in cooler temperatures Friday made gains on major wildfires threatening homes in central and southern Montana, but lightning continued to spark new blazes and the heat was expected return in coming days.
A mandatory evacuation for 20 to 30 homes south of Columbus was downgraded to voluntary, and significant progress was reported on a fire north of Winnett.
Meanwhile, crews scrambled to squelch several new small fires caused by lightning in Fergus County, along Ambrose Creek in the Bitterroot Valley, and on private land south of the Big Snowy Mountains in central Montana.
With a drought setting in across most of the state and hot temperatures forecast to return, authorities said this year's already busy fire season is far from over.
"It's just so dry, everything is ready to go," said John Grassy with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Stillwater County commissioners on Friday lifted the evacuation order for the 5-square-mile Skibstad Fire south of Columbus after firefighters declared it more than one-third contained.
More than 230 personnel were helping fight the blaze burning in grass and timber.
Some structures have been burned, but officials have not said whether they are houses or outbuildings.
A survey of damaged areas was planned Friday and a public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Columbus High School. A shelter for evacuees has been set up at the school, but no one was staying there Friday morning, said fire information officer Cindy Super.
Meanwhile, north of Winnett, the Wolf Creek Fire grew to 19 square miles by Friday morning — a dramatic expansion from roughly 1 square mile about 24 hours earlier. The fire burning in juniper, sage and grass was about half contained, with 12 houses and outbuildings threatened.
Much of the growth was attributed to a pair of backfires that were lit to starve the blaze of fuel and stop its advance, said Steve Knox with the Bureau of Land Management.
Knox described the danger to the threatened houses and outbuildings as minimal and added that full containment of the blaze was possible by Saturday. The fire is bordered by the two burned out areas on its east and west sides, by a road to the north, and by the Sacagawea River — known locally as Crooked Creek — to the south.
"It's all boxed in nice," Knox said.
Knox said officials were anticipating more fires as early as Friday afternoon after beating back as many as 10 small fires that ignited over the last several days.
Two other blazes in the area — the 15 Mile Fire to the south and the Garden Coulee Fire on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge — had burned a combined 2 1/2 square miles but were not considered a significant threat to houses.
In western Montana, the 3-square-mile Chandral Creek Fire south of Darby along the Idaho border was reported at half contained, and 37 residences and outbuildings were considered threatened. People living in the Hughes Creek area remained under notice that they could have to evacuate.