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Lodgepole Complex fire

Fire lingers in an area burned by the Bridge Coulee fire in the Lodgepole Complex on Saturday near Sand Springs on Sunday.

REBECCA NOBLE, Gazette Staff

Fire crews and equipment in Garfield and Petroleum counties, battling what is the largest wildfire in the nation, have exceeded what officials ordered, even before any were mobilized with a state fire emergency declaration.

Gov. Steve Bullock issued the declaration Sunday as the 270,000 acre Lodgepole Complex fires continued to grow, though at a much slower rate.

About 55 small firefighting engines, five larger engines, and about 20 water tenders have arrived from more than 30 states to fight the blaze. 

"We've got the field personnel that we need at this point," said Tim Engrav, a spokesman for the fire's incident command team, who also said there had been no conversation with the governor's office about additional resources for the fire. 

Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel confirmed that no National Guard troops have been mobilized, nor have additional resources been directed at the fire. She noted that the "National Guard stands ready to deploy as circumstances on the ground change" in an email. 

Engrav said that good progress has been made on the complex fires on Tuesday as temperatures cooled. Between a historic drought and recent hot temperatures, low humidity and shifting winds, conditions have been ripe for fires to take off.

The complex is made up of three fires, the Barker Fire, the South Breaks Fire, and the Bridge Coulee Fire, which was reported on July 19. 

A noon update Thursday from the Bureau of Land Management pegged the Barker Fire at about 2,500 acres, the Bridge Coulee Fire at 800 acres, and the South Breaks Fire at 600 acres.

A 4 p.m. update the same day noted the Barker Fire had grown, and the South Breaks and Bridge Coulee fires were already about 2,500 acres. 

Five hours later, the Bridge Coulee fire had blown up to more than 32,000 acres. The Barker Fire was about 10,000 acres and the South Breaks Fire was larger than 5,000 acres. 

The blaze continued to grow on Friday. By 8 p.m., evacuation notices were issued for areas north of Highway 200. Acreage estimates updated at 9 a.m. Saturday pegged the fires at 125,000 acres.

The fire sprinted across Highway 200 and jumped fire lines four bulldozers widths thick on Saturday, charring a massive swath of land south of the road. By the end of the day, acreage estimates were up to 200,000 acres and a dozen homes had burned. 

The fire has continued to grow, with acreage estimates up to 270,000, but the explosion occurred in the fire's early days. Containment, which has been a challenge for fire officials to measure, is now estimated at 34 percent.  

Ranchers have put out desperate pleas for hay to feed cattle whose pasture land was turned into a blackened moonscape. At least some cattle perished. 

More than 300 local firefighters and ranchers battled the blaze early on before more help arrived, and several other fires burning across Montana — including a fire just west of the Lodgepole Complex — demanded their own resources. 

A command post was established in Sand Springs on Saturday, and firefighters and equipment continued to arrive Sunday and Monday. Officials lifted an evacuation order for a swath of Garfield County on Tuesday afternoon. 

Montana's fire season is still young; more than 300,000 acres have already burned in the state this year, far more than last year. But it's dwarfed by the 1.2 million acres that burned in 2012, the year fire officials have cited as the last year with comparable fire conditions in Eastern Montana. 

Engrav noted Tuesday afternoon that a new fire was reported in Powder River County. National Guard troops might not show up on fire lines for the Lodgepole Complex, he said. That doesn't mean they won't end up battling other blazes this year. 

*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly state the date when Gov. Steve Bullock issued a fire emergency declaration. He issued the declaration Sunday. 



Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.