1,500-acre fire burning east of Lockwood; 1 house lost

2012-08-20T16:25:00Z 2012-08-21T11:54:05Z 1,500-acre fire burning east of Lockwood; 1 house lostBy ED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

A fire that had burned 60 to 80 acres when it was reported about 3 p.m. east of Lockwood had grown to more than 1,500 acres by 8:30 p.m. Monday.

The fire, which destroyed at least one house, was being battled by 80 firefighters from multiple agencies, Lockwood Fire Chief Bill Rash said. No injuries had been reported.

At 8:30 p.m., Paula Short, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the fire was estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 acres and was 0 percent contained.

She said fire managers were concerned about threats to the Briarwood subdivision, just south of Billings and east of Blue Creek Road. The fire started between Lockwood and Pryor Creek about six miles east of Lockwood off U.S. Highway 87 East, on the Crow Reservation.

The fire also damaged electricity transmission lines in the area, leaving many without power Monday and overnight.

Brandon Whittman, general manager of the Yellowstone Valley Co-op, said about a quarter of the co-op’s customers in the Blue Creek area were without power until 9 p.m. and that all of its Pryor customers – about 300 meters – would be without power overnight as damaged structures and equipment are replaced. He said the customers are mostly residential.

He said crews have been on the scene assessing the damage but that it’s difficult to get an accurate assessment in the dark.

Whittman said the goal is to have all power back on Tuesday morning. To that end, crews were going to spend the night figuring out what types of poles and equipment were in the fire area so replacement material would be ready first thing in the morning. Crews also would fly the transmission line Tuesday morning.

Short said the Highway 87 fire, as it has been named, is believed to have been human-caused and a fire investigator has been called in.

Rash said firefighters from Lockwood, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state DNRC were on the scene. Short said equipment on the fire included three heavy air tankers, two single-engine tankers, three helicopters and numerous engines.

Other personnel and equipment were on the way from Billings, Laurel, Blue Creek and Shepherd fire departments.The fire was burning in bone-dry hills of grass and sagebrush interspersed with stands of pine. Rash said the Lockwood firefighters and DNRC crews were concentrated on the north side of the fire and the BIA was on the south.

Jon Kohn, a spokesman for the BIA fire crew from Crow Agency, said at 6 p.m. that the fire was centered about a mile west of Pryor Creek Road and was moving south, parallel to that road, at the rate of a mile or two an hour.

Later in the evening, about 10:30 p.m., Kohn said all roads had been opened to local traffic, and non-residents were asked to stay away.

"It's important that the public avoid the areas entirely" because of all the traffic related to the firefighting effort, Kohn said.

Seven miles east of Lockwood, 19-year-old Luke Webb was home alone in the 2,000-square-foot house that his family leases when, about 3 p.m., "I realized there were flames feet away."

He said he grabbed his keys and phone and was driving away when he met some ranchers with water trucks.

"But by that time the house was too far gone to try to save," he said.

Webb said he thought maybe the garage didn't burn, but his father, Tim Webb, said later in the evening that his family lost everything, including the house and garage, cars and a backhoe.

The Webbs lived on 120 acres. Luke Webb said that when he left the house, "hundreds of yards down our property, everything was ablaze. Every tree was on fire."

Earlier in the afternoon, Yellowstone Sheriff's Deputy Blaine Weston was manning a roadblock a few miles east of Lockwood. He dealt with a steady stream of ranchers and others who wanted to be let through to help fight the fire, but he had to turn them all back.

One of them was Mike Krueger, who lives on a ranch owned by his father-in-law, Lyndon Coburn.

"I went to town to go grocery shopping and I heard about this and I've been flying ever since," he said.

Pointing to a distant ridge from which a thick plume of smoke was rising, with firefighters' pickups visible on the ridge, Krueger said that was the Coburn ranch.

"We need to get down there and fight this son of a bitch," Krueger said.

Later, Weston said many of the people he turned back seemed to have found their way around the roadblocks by taking ranch roads.

"A lot of people, we're asking to be patient with us," Rash said. "This will be an extended fire."

Rash said he knew of only one house lost to the fire. On the south end of the fire, Kohn said engines were doing structure protection and no buildings had been lost.

Short, with the DNRC, said winds were predicted to be out of the south Tuesday, which also a cause for concern. Firefighters were engaged in structure protection late Monday and were planning to work through the night, she said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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