After forcing evacuation orders on Friday night, the Lodgepole Complex fire continued to burn across drought-stricken Eastern Montana range land on Saturday, and by nightfall was estimated at 200,000 acres in size and zero percent contained. 

A total of 300 firefighting personnel were working on the four fires Saturday and Tim Engrav, deputy public information officer with Rick Connell's Western Montana Type 2 Incident Management Team, said there could be 500 personnel by the end of Sunday if all requests are filled. That number excludes locals firefighters, landowners and volunteers, he said. 

Anne Miller, Garfield County public information officer, estimated there were 300 county volunteers working on the fire. "Our county only has a population of 1,300 on a good day here," she said. 

"Very extreme behavior," Engrav said of the way the fire has burned. "Ray Hageman, the local fire warden, he was telling us as a team coming in last night, he's been fighting fire in this (Garfield) county since the early 80s and he's never seen it so extreme as it's been." 

Damage assessments are still being conducted, but Engrav said there are reports of structures lost and that it was unclear to what extent livestock have been affected. Engrav said he heard reports some sage grouse habitat has been threatened by the fire. 

"I'd heard they're doing a lot of efforts to cut fences, get them (livestock) moving out of the way ahead of the fire," Engrav said. "I haven't heard any estimate yet on what may or may not have been lost." 

Saturday evening the fire was estimated to have damaged 15 structures, according to Miller, but she said a structure could be anything from a home to a garage to a shop to an outbuilding. 

Engrav said a figure had yet to be tallied for the amount of people displaced, but said the shelter set up in the VFW Hall in Jordan remained empty early Saturday night. 

"We have had residents displaced but in Garfield County, the more appropriate term would be residents are working the fire at other locations and not always defending their own structures," Miller said. 

Friday night evacuation orders were issued for residents north of Highway 200 to Fort Peck Lake and west of Edwards Road in Garfield County. Some areas included are Big Bart Coulee, Haley Coulee, Benzien School area, Benzien Road to Steve Forks Road and the Battle Coulee area. 

Saturday at around 3 p.m. Highway 200 was closed from Mosby to Sand Springs due to the fire crossing the roadway and showing "erratic" behavior, according to the Garfield County Disaster and Emergency Services Facebook page. 

An hour later that closure was extended from Jordan to Winnett, a total of more than 70 miles. BLM spokesperson Al Nash said the closure was extended as a precaution to avoid the potential risks of detouring travelers through more isolated areas near the fire. 

By nightfall the closure was lifted, but Miller said incident command strongly emphasized that drivers should only use Highway 200 for essential travel. 

Because of smoke visibility issues and the fact that some livestock have been allowed to roam freely in order to escape the fire, Miller urged area drivers to be aware of their surroundings and "to drive carefully and expect there would be livestock on the roads." 

The four fires in the complex, burning roughly 52 miles west and northwest of Jordan and 15 miles east of Winnett. The fires are the Bridge Coulee fire, the South Breaks fire, the Barker fire and the Square Butte fire. 

The Bridge Coulee fire was estimated at 160,000 acres, the Barker fire at 24,000 acres and the combined South Breaks and Square Butte fires at 36,000 acres.

The Bridge Coulee has burned in part along the Musselshell River and may have moved "slightly up into" the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday and had some movement across Highway 200, Engrav said. 

There was some success fighting the fire Saturday on its southern front compared to the strong push south it made Friday, he said. 

Local firefighters organized by Garfield County and landowners trying to protect their property have been battling the fires for four days, Engrav said. On Sunday, firefighting personnel could possibly be coming from east of the Mississippi River.

"We're getting some resources from the eastern states, because we're getting so stretched out here with big fires, over in the western part of Montana, too," he said. "Some of the states out east are stepping up and sending folks out too."

A cause has not been confirmed but the fire is suspected to have been lightning caused, he said. 

The fire was first reported on Wednesday at about 3:20 p.m. A lightning storm that blew through the area around that time led to roughly 11 fire starts, Engrav said. 

"These four were the four that weren't caught in the initial attack," he said of the complex. 

The Bridge Coulee fire moved primarily eastward Saturday. The South Breaks and Square Butte fires joined together and showed movement to the south. 

Forecasts for Sunday continue to show hot, dry weather, but Engrav said winds could top out at 6 mph and blow from the south, possibly helping the effort by turning some of the fires in on themselves.

'It's so dry moving through the grass, so it moves quickly through the grass and open country, of course," Engrav said. "Water and retardant aren't always guaranteed to put it out." 

The most success has been seen using heavy machinery including bulldozers to cut out fire lines, he said. 

Jordan has received 3.56 inches of rain to date, according to Victor Proton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Glasgow and also the fire weather program manager for northeast Montana. In a normal year, Jordan would have 8.37 inches of rain, he said. "They're more than double in the hole right now on precipitation," Proton said. 

Though the winds may die down on Sunday, Proton said temperatures in the upper 90s could near 100 and relative humidity in the area will be at around 10 percent. Wind gusts could reach up to 15 mph. Conditions could still lead to "explosive fire growth," Proton said. 

A smoke advisory is in effect for Garfield County. Thick smoke could pose health risks to people with respiratory issues and limit visibility on roadways. 

"You can see smoke from the fires on the satellite going across the southern part of Garfield County," Proton said. 

Fuels for the fire include pine, grass and sagebrush. It is burning across state and private land and also land belonging to the BLM and Department of Natural Resources

Engrav said firefighters would have the supplies they needed, and he wasn't aware of any specific needs for evacuees. 

Despite the threat of the fire, Miller said the community in Garfield County continues to band together. "The conditions have been unprecedented but this is such a tight-knit community it has been very easy getting things set up." 

Requests for supplies, water, generators and other supplies are being announced on the Garfield County DES Facebook page located at . Donations are being accepted through Ryan's Grocery store, which can be reached at 406-557-2744. Credit card donations are also being taken at the Cenex gas station in Jordan toward an open account to minimize costs volunteer firefighters might incur trying to fuel up coming to and from fire lines. The Cenex can be reached at 406-557-2215. Food donations were being accepted at the Jordan Senior Center on Saturday, but Miller said food donations were so significant that as of Saturday night there was no longer a current need for more food donations. 


General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.