Dozens of residents in the Dillman Road area of the Bull Mountains stared in terror from the Branding Iron Saloon parking lot Tuesday as the Dahl fire engulfed the mountainside — until the fire, pushed by 55 mph winds, crossed the road and headed straight for the saloon.
As the fire wall spread in every direction south of Roundup, Musselshell County sheriff's deputies moved dozens of residents, their livestock and vehicle traffic further south on Highway 87.
The number of homes lost in the Dahl fire is still unknown, but Musselshell County Attorney Kent Sipe said at 8:30 p.m. that at least 60 homes had burned.
Kevin Prophet’s house at the end of Matthew Road was spared in the Hawk Creek fire in 1984, just one month after he moved to the property. He won’t be as fortunate this time around, he said.
“I’ve been through this once before but thought my place might be safe,” Prophet said. “The fire in ’84 was huge, but boy, it was nothing like this one.”
At 4:30 p.m., Prophet received a reverse-911 phone call notifying him to leave the area. He was aware of the fire, he said, but thought it would burn toward the north, missing him again.
“I grabbed what I could — pictures, papers and just whatever valuables I could grab on the way out — and then got the hell out of there,” he said.
Prophet turned his three horses loose in hopes they would find their way out of the fire.
“There are a lot of people losing their homes today — their livestock, their pets — so many things,” Nancy Borninkhof said. “Last year it was the flood, this year it’s fire.”
Nancy and her husband, Barney Borninkhof, watched in disbelief from the side of the highway as their home burned. They built it just four years ago.
“This home was a long time waiting,” Barney said. “But, we’ve picked ourselves up from our bootstraps many times. We just gotta do that again.”
Cameron McDonald, 19, said he couldn’t see his road behind him as he left his house. He first saw the fire from Billings and thought it was just a huge cloud. As he drove home, he realized the cloud was smoke. And then he realized the fire was coming from the area where he, his cousin and their grandfather live.
“We didn’t have time to grab much of anything,” McDonald said. “The most important thing was to get to my grandpa, who recently had a stroke, out of his house.”
Communications were a major problem. Some residents couldn't reach family members by cellphones and had no way of knowing whether their family members made it down from the mountain.
"This is the worst day of my life," Lisa Barter shouted. "I have no idea of knowing if my family is alive."
“The terror and pain sets in, I’m sure, when you see the actual devastation the fire creates,” Prophet said. “It’s a tough thing to watch.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for Montana's Dahl Fire in Musselshell County.
At the time of the emergency request, the fire was threatening 203 homes in the area. The fire was also threatening the Signal Mountain coal mine, schools and a fire station. Mandatory evacuations are ordered for 203 homes at this time.
The Dahl fire is one of 10 large fires burning uncontrolled in Montana, according to a FEMA press release.
“The fire is traveling fast enough that we can’t get on top of it,” Sipe said. “The wind is relentless.”