By MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildfires in Montana have exploded in size, triggering evacuations and destroying an unknown number of homes as furious winds stoked the blazes and caused a firefighting helicopter to crash-land, officials said Wednesday.
The sudden ramping up of the fire season came as record-high, triple-digit temperatures early in the week baked much of Montana and portions of northern Wyoming. At least 14 new fires were reported in the two states since Tuesday.
Crews took advantage of a temporary break in the heat to dig fire lines, while aircraft dropped fire retardant to slow the advance of major blazes near Townsend in central Montana and Red Lodge near the Wyoming state line. Evacuation orders remained in place, and houses and other property remained in peril.
Hotel clerk Linda Bishop said “it looked like the end of the world” in Red Lodge, not far from Yellowstone National Park, when flames began chewing across the forested slopes of Mount Maurice that rise above the tourist town.
“In the afternoon, you could start to see the flames, and when it got dark, it looked like Armageddon,” said Bishop, who was up much of the night checking in arriving firefighters at the Beartooth Hideaway Inn and Cabins. “It was sad to see Mount Maurice burning. I just love that mountain.”
The fire was human caused and under investigation by the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Forest Service law enforcement, said Custer-Gallatin forest spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan.
Further northwest in the Big Belt Mountains east of Townsend, firefighters pulled back from a separate fire burning in a heavily timbered canyon and took refuge in safety zones when the blaze began moving so fast and hot that it became unsafe to try to stop it, said Erin Fryer with the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The fire burning in timber and grass in the Deep Creek Canyon area grew overnight from less than 1 square mile (3 square kilometers) to more than 3 square miles (8 square kilometers). Eight structures were reported destroyed. It was unknown how many of those were homes.
Investigators were examining if a power line downed by a tree started the fire.
A state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire helicopter crash-landed in the heavy winds, rolled over and caught fire. The five people aboard got out safely and were taken to hospitals for minor injuries before being released Tuesday night, agency spokesperson Paige Cohn said. The crash remains under review, she said.
A subdivision with 65 houses and cabins was evacuated as the flames neared. Aircraft dropped retardant Wednesday to slow the fire’s advance on the Grassy Mountain subdivision.
Officials said at a news conference Wednesday night near Townsend that they plan on using more aircraft Thursday to drop retardant on the fire.
Several of the officials said the region’s wildfires started unusually early this year. They said they expect to get more staff and equipment to battle the fires. They asked for the public’s patience.
State Highway 12 remained closed through the area after the fire burned over a two-mile stretch of the road, causing damage and leaving debris, officials said.
Meanwhile, the fire near Yellowstone National Park and the state line with Wyoming grew from about 3 square miles (8 square kilometers) to more than 31 square miles (85 square kilometers) by Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of houses in the path of the blaze, fire spokesperson Amy Hyfield said.
The fire that started Sunday in the Robertson Draw area was threatening 450 homes and hundreds more buildings and other infrastructure, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. Some residents were being allowed home Wednesday evening, officials said during a public meeting, but were encouraged to remain vigilant and be ready to leave quickly.
Following a request from Gov. Greg Gianforte, the agency on Wednesday deemed the fire a major disaster because of the amount of damage it could cause, making Montana eligible for reimbursement for most costs. The Federal Emergency Management Administration authorized use of federal funds to help fight the blaze, U.S. Senator Jon Tester announced.
Crews had been deployed to protect houses, and about 21 buildings had been damaged as of Wednesday night, authorities said at the public meeting. They said the fire was human-caused, the person has been identified and officials have met with the county attorney amid an ongoing investigation. No injuries were reported.
The evacuation included U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and cabins on private inholdings south of Red Lodge.
Beartooth Pass — a highway that leads to Yellowstone National Park — remained open.
On the Crow Reservation, officials reported a new fire in the Bighorn Mountains near the Montana-Wyoming border. The fire was burning in steeply sided Little Bull Elk Canyon, with flames up to 150 feet (46 meters) high that threatened to spread the blaze, officials said.
Adjacent to the reservation, a new fire on National Forest land burned 7 square miles (18 square kilometers) near the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range after igniting Tuesday evening.
A fire 16 miles (26 kilometers) southwest of Ashland in southeast Montana threatened an unspecified number of homes and had burned 1 square mile (3 square kilometers).
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