Active fires challenge area agencies

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo

POWELL – Amid high winds and triple-digit temperatures, wildland fires have exploded in northern Wyoming and southern Montana. 

Fires are now raging in the Beartooth Range, the Pryor Mountains, the Bighorns and on public land near Buffalo, with columns of smoke visible across the Big Horn Basin. Given the amount of haze, the National Weather Service encouraged basin residents to limit their outdoor activities on Wednesday if possible. 

As the air in Bearcreek, Montana became thick with smoke from the Robertson Draw Fire, blocking the sun, Bruce South was sporting his white hat and candy-apple red shirt as he headed into the Bear Creek Saloon to work a private party Tuesday night. 

“We were supposed to get 50, but only 10 showed,” he said. 

Flames from the Robertson Draw Fire, which was first reported Sunday afternoon on the border between Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Shoshone National Forest near Clark, had crested nearby Mount Maurice. A stiff wind seemed to be pushing the fire directly at the tiny town of Bearcreek, just 7 miles east of Red Lodge. Bearcreek was on evacuation notice, but never faced an official evacuation, according to Forest Service public information officer Billy Chapman. 

“The wind shifted [Tuesday] night, pushing the fire south,” he said. 

Several residents voluntarily left the area, fearing the worst. 

South wasn’t too worried. The party was attended by several emergency medical services personnel who were in direct communication with fire officials, he said. The party continued while others were leaving town. 

The fire grew from about 40 acres Sunday afternoon, when it was initially reported, to 2,000 acres Tuesday morning to more than 21,000 acres by Wednesday morning. 

High winds and temperatures hampered the effort to fight the blaze on Tuesday, grounding air attack tankers and helicopters shortly after noon out of caution. 

Earlier Tuesday, a helicopter responding to the Deep Creek fire near Townsend, Montana, experienced a hard landing, starting a fire and sending the five crew members to area hospitals for treatment. 

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was relieved to hear all involved were getting the necessary medical attention. 

“Please join me for praying for them and our first responders across the state,” he posted on Twitter. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Montana Department of Transportation shut down Highway 308 between Belfry and Red Lodge. 

It seemed much later in the day than it was, as the thick columns of black and white smoke from Robertson Draw Fire blotted out the sun. The shade made by smoke offered some temporary relief to the blazing heat of the day, but was little consolation. 

The road was open again by Wednesday morning as the fire persisted, but numerous other roads were affected. 

Meeteetse Trail Road, Grove Creek Road, Robertson Draw Road and Line Creek Road near Clark were all closed to the public. 

Numerous resources are on scene and additional hand crews, engines, helicopters, a rappel crew and support personnel were en route on Wednesday, according to a Forest Service press release. 

Air tankers continued supporting the incident, able to fly again starting Wednesday morning. A Type 2 Incident Management Team will be taking command of the fire. 

The fire continued to burn along the east side of Line Creek Plateau into sage and grass south of Bearcreek and Belfry and around Mount Maurice, south of Red Lodge. 

All evacuation orders remained in place Wednesday, including the area south of Highway 308 from Red Lodge to Highway 72 and west of Highway 72 to the Wyoming border. Evacuations also included the area east of Highway 212 from Meeteetse Trail Road to Westminster Spires Church Camp, USDA Forest Service Recreation Residences in Corral Creek, Spring Creek, Snow Creek and Sheep Creek and all campgrounds, dispersed camping and trailheads from the Lake Fork north to Red Lodge including the dispersed camping area just west of the Lake Fork Road. 

A shelter was set up at Red Lodge Community Church for those displaced by the fire, and the Red Cross set up another shelter at the Veteran Memorial Civic Center. 

Several buildings (mostly cabins) were in jeopardy in the Ruby Creek and Gold Creek drainages just over the Wyoming border in Montana, but details about any losses weren’t available by press time. 

Fire managers had scheduled a virtual public meeting for Tuesday evening, but it was rescheduled for Wednesday as the Robertson Draw Fire remained active. 

“Firefighters are needed on the fire line tonight [Tuesday] given the intense fire behavior and dynamic situation,” Custer Gallatin National Forest officials said in a Facebook post. 

Crews from Belfry, Fromberg, Columbus, Red Lodge, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service and others have all converged on the scene. 

The towns of Bearcreek and Belfry were excluded from the evacuations as of Wednesday afternoon. But Red Lodge residents could see the fire burning near the town’s perimeter, visible from downtown businesses and homes. Many took to the scenic viewing area on State Highway 308 at Brophy Road to watch the fire engulf Mount Maurice and the surrounding areas. 

Although the fire is largely located in the Custer Gallatin, its smoke is settling over the Shoshone National Forest. 

“While there are not currently any fires on the Shoshone National Forest, vegetation is drying out rapidly this year, and our fire danger ranges from very high to extreme,” Shoshone Fire Management Officer Clint Dawson said Wednesday. “It is very important for people to be extra cautious with any campfires or open flames of any sort that they may have this coming weekend as our grasses and fine fuels are much drier than normal for June.” 

Smoke from the Robertson Draw Fire is expected to remain in the area “for the foreseeable future.” 

It wasn’t the only blaze clouding local skies, either. 

The Buffalo Pasture Fire erupted south of the Crow Reservation in the Bighorn Mountains near Ft. Smith, Montana, Tuesday morning. The fire was burning the steep canyon’s walls with rapid rates of spread and 100- to 150-foot flame lengths and growing, according to the Forest Service. 

By Wednesday morning, the Billings Interagency Dispatch Center estimated the fire had burned more than 500 acres. The area is heavy with timber that hasn’t burned in “many years,” and is producing a lot of smoke, they reported. 

The fire wasn’t threatening Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area as of Wednesday morning, according to Christy Fleming, chief interpretive ranger for the park. 

Another fire broke out in the Pryor Mountains Tuesday evening, but there was little information released on the conditions. 

As with the Robertson Draw Fire, the wildfire’s huge column of smoke towering over the range could be seen in the skies north of Powell. 

Other fires burning around the region include a roughly 1,300-acre fire northwest of Ten Sleep and a 1,038-acre fire outside of Buffalo, both on BLM land.