Finally, after 11 long days of flames, power outages and evacuations, the Ash Creek fire in southeastern Montana is on the verge of being tamed.
Standing under cloudy skies at 6 a.m. Thursday, Incident Commander Tom Heintz said demobilization of the 248,600-acre fire that scorched parts of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and Rosebud and Powder River counties is in sight.
“It’s looking good,” he said. “Probably 90 percent of it is cool.”
Fire was still burning in timber in three places, but is pushing out of the trees and into grass, where it can more easily be contained, Heintz said. Cooler weather, cloud cover and potential rain gave firefighters a window Thursday to make headway on the still active north and east flanks of the fire, which has blackened about 381 square miles in the hilly country near Ashland.
The fire was listed at 70 percent contained on Thursday night.
Heintz said he heard somewhere, but hadn’t verified it, that the Ash Creek fire was the largest in Montana since the deadly fires of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington. It has surpassed the 199,500-acre Derby fire that rolled through Eastern Montana in 2006. Until Ash Creek, the Derby fire was the largest since 1998.
The number of firefighters was at its peak Thursday with 828 fire personnel. Most of them slept in tents and ate their meals from a Big Sky Catering facility set up at the fire camp near the St. Labre Mission in Ashland.
“It’s pretty much organized like the military,” said camp boss John Conlan, who is in charge of everything from supplies to communications. He makes sure there is plenty of water, enough food and a large inventory of everything from fire-safe clothing to hoses that keep firefighters fighting fire.
One thing the camp lacks is T-shirts. Firefighters like souvenirs and T-shirt screeners everywhere have missed an opportunity.
“I’m looking for a T-shirt,” said firefighter Ron Dingfelder from the Camp Crook, S.D., Fire Department, as he approached a Gazette team Thursday. “Do you know of anyone selling them?”
Normally on a big fire, someone pulls up with a van loaded with commemorative T-shirts.
Vehicle maintenance also falls under Conlan’s purview.
“Our biggest maintenance problem on fires is tires,” he said. “A shop in Ashland fixes them for us.”
At Fred’s Hardware and Repair on Highway 212, Fred Isaacs started repairing tires at 5 a.m. Thursday, said his wife, Deedee, who operates the retail portion of the store.
While Highway 212 is closed to tourists who drive through Ashland on their way from the Black Hills to Yellowstone Park, firefighters have been providing a steady stream of business this week. A load of tires is scheduled to arrive at the shop Friday to meet the demand.
“It started Monday when the Type 2 (incident command) team arrived,” Deedee said. “We had a real influx then.”
Even when the town lost power, Fred was on the job.
“He has a generator and a coffee maker in his pickup,” she smiled.
The store has remained open 24 hours a day during the emergency, Deedee said.
“We have flashlights to help people look for what they need,” she said. “You do it for your people. These are our people.”
She doesn’t want to be singled out and says her husband would be mortified if he got more praise than his neighbors who are all working just as hard.
“There are just too many heroes in this neighborhood,” Deedee said.
Fred is a firefighter as well as mechanic and like many other residents of this small rural community, he spent days trying to keep his and other people’s property safe.
The fire nearly got him when he was working with his water tender in a ravine on the edge of the fire. While he was watering down some vegetation, fire suddenly surrounded him. Smoke was so thick he couldn’t see and couldn’t breathe.
From where Deedee was waiting, she watched the fire moving in on her husband.
“I didn’t know how he could survive,” she said.
Fire pumper trucks rallied and headed in his direction, but smoke was so thick they couldn’t get near. They could only sit and watch.
“Pretty soon we see Fred coming through the smoke in his pickup,” she said. “He had a big smile on his face and he was all wet.”
Fred had taken a deep breath and followed the hose back to his truck.
Meanwhile Tongue River Electric Cooperative has been working to restore electricity to customers cut off when power poles were lost to the flames. Broadus’ power was restored late Tuesday night after a week of spotty supply.
Crew foreman Paul Stollenwerk said that about a dozen houses are still without power in the Taylor Creek fire near Fort Howes, and crews will also need to restore power to pumps used to provide water for livestock. They will also be fixing lines to home sites burned in the fire.
“They are still our customers,” he said.
He estimated that Tongue River Electric repaired 450 miles of power line, including 71 miles of transmission line.