Montana Wildfire Destroys Two Homes, Forces Evacuations

August 21, 2007

Two homes were destroyed by a wind-whipped wildfire that forced the evacuation of a 350-home subdivision east of Billings, Mont., authorities said.

The fire, estimated at 1,000 acres and growing Monday morning, destroyed two homes in the Emerald Hills subdivision and was threatening many more, said William Rash, chief of the Lockwood Fire Department.

Several outbuildings also were destroyed, although crews were able to save “many, many” homes that otherwise would have burned, in some cases putting out decks that had started on fire, officials said.

“Firefighters were fighting them right up to the back door,” Rash said.

Residents of the subdivision’s 350 homes were evacuated Sunday and were still displaced Monday morning, said Jack Conner of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Rash said that residents of at least 10 to 15 homes stayed behind to protect their houses from the flames.

The Ford Road fire was reported at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, shortly after a wind-driven thunderstorm went through the Billings area. Lightning was seen in the area at the time, but the cause has not been confirmed, said Mary Apple, fire information officer.

Resident Kelsey Ebinger, 19, said she first heard about the fire when a neighbor called to warn her family.

“I went outside and the winds picked up and there was just black and red clouds coming up over us,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. It just stung to breathe.”

Ebinger said she and her brother drove out the rear entrance of the subdivision in a convoy of about 60 cars because the main entrance was blocked.

“People were getting so panicked, they were going 60 mph,” she said, “but there was no way you could outrun it.”

Gusty wind whipped up the fire overnight and about 50 fire engines were trying to protect homes in the subdivision, Conner said.

“They’re staging themselves at homes in areas where they can defend the homes, areas cleared of vegetation,” he said.

Continued erratic winds were making the fire difficult to control. New spot fires were starting frequently and wind gusts of up to 40 mph were forecast Monday.

Air tankers and helicopters dropped water and retardant on the blaze, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal money to help the state pay for firefighting costs.

In western Montana, gusty wind and low humidities tested fire lines and prompted more evacuations prompted by several fires.

Near the town of Seeley Lake, wind pushed the Jocko Lakes fire toward Placid Lake, prompting authorities to issue an evacuation order for that summer recreation area Sunday afternoon, said Paul Slenkamp, a fire information officer. He did not know how many homes were involved.

Crews were pulled off the lightning-sparked blaze after it jumped control lines and grew to 31,520 acres, or 49 square miles. It was 25 percent contained, although crews planned to dig new lines in the areas they were compromised the day before, officials said.

One home has been destroyed in that blaze, and several others damaged.

Southeast of Missoula, Granite County authorities evacuated 213 cabins and homes in the path of a complex of fires burning in three national forests.

Many residents had already left, though, and fire information officer Bruce MacDonald said the move was more a precautionary one because of erratic wind Sunday afternoon. Cooler temperatures and higher humidities were forecast starting Monday.

The fires are part of the Sawmill complex, which has burned at least 44,276 acres, or 69 square miles, and was 20 percent contained. The blazes have cost $8.1 million to fight so far.

Up to 100 homes northwest of Missoula were still evacuated due to the Black Cat fire, which grew to 8,448 acres as of Monday morning and was 12 percent contained. U.S. 93 was open, although residents of a two-mile stretch of the highway were told to be prepared to leave if the fire blew up.

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