ASHLAND — Fire crews spent Monday battling erratic behavior on the Ash Creek fire, which has burned about 200,000 acres in Rosebud and Powder River counties.
Brian LaMoure, fire information officer, said Sunday night’s containment estimate of 40 percent held Monday as the fire moved to the north and southeast.
Fueled by strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity — as it has been since the lightning-caused fire was first reported June 26 — the fire has been moving too fast for crews to feel comfortable getting in front of it.
“We’ve been told that it could move as fast as 4 mph,” LaMoure said. “That’s faster than some people can run.”
As of Monday morning, officials counted 16 homes and 22 outbuildings destroyed by the fire. An evacuation order for Ashland was lifted over the weekend, allowing only residents to return to town through a roadblock on Highway 212 in Lame Deer, which is closed to the junction with Highway 59 near Broadus.
Late Sunday or early Monday, the fire crossed to the south side of Highway 212 east of Ashland near Home Creek, prompting officials to evacuate 16 more homes in the area.
The Black Hills Chapter of the American Red Cross has been placed on standby to open a shelter for people displaced by fires burning in the Ash Creek Complex near Broadus. Belle Fourche, S.D., though 95 miles away from Broadus, is one of the closer large towns, a straight shot southeast along U.S. Highway 212.
The fire burned several thousand additional acres. By noon Monday, the fire had made its way to a large hill about a quarter-mile from the road, where trees could be seen erupting in flame as white and gray smoke belched hundreds of feet into the air.
Blaine Fortner came from Billings to help his parents, Tim and Gaylene Fortner, protect their property in the Home Creek area. He spent Sunday night and Monday morning working frantically with neighbors to protect a handful of homes and buildings.
“We looked at it earlier in the evening and it was a couple of ridges away,” he said. “We thought we had a couple of days before it hit us, but then those winds picked it up.”
The flames reached the edge of the property by 1 a.m. Monday and were bearing down on the Fortners and a few gathered friends and neighbors, who were using heavy equipment to dig fire lines and pumpers to spray down buildings and yards.
“By the time it got over the ridge, I looked up and there was just a flaming wall of ash,” Fortner said. “That wall of fire behind it, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was coming down so fast. It wasn’t supposed to get here until today.”
He has spent the past three days — his dad logged four before taking a nap Monday afternoon — helping with the firefighting efforts.
After watching the flames race toward his parents’ home and working just yards away from them, Fortner said he’s relieved and a little surprised.
“I was 100 percent for sure that I was going to be a goner,” he said while standing on his grandparents’ deck about a mile west on Highway 212 and watching the fire work its way up a hill.
Near the Fortner property, Dwight Harding oversaw a 20-person Northern Cheyenne hand crew that was scouring the blackened area, putting out hot spots and watching for flare-ups.
Harding's crew arrived over the weekend after traveling to a handful of fires around the region.
Earlier in the day, information officer Pat McKelvey said nine hours of sustained 20 mph winds, with gusts as high as 50 mph, complicated efforts Sunday, a trend that officials thought would continue Monday as the fire grew.
“The winds really did expand the fire line,” LaMoure said. “It’s been going so fast that its firefighters can’t attack it from the front. But now it’s moving into the prairie, where it’s less wooded and it’s easier to attack.”
He described the burn area, which extends into Powder River County and is about 25 miles from Broadus, as 20 miles wide and 30 miles long.
Officials are discussing whether to request a Type I fire command team, which would oversee efforts on several of the larger wildfires burning in the area, including those of the Type II team on the Ashland fire.
More than 500 firefighters are taking part in the efforts using numerous tenders, dozers and engines. Five helicopters also are assisting.
Most of the firefighters have moved from a command camp in Colstrip to a spike camp set up north of Ashland because it is closer to the fire and makes it easier for them to access the burn area.
McKelvey said later Monday that forecasts were for a "significant night of fire weather," including a possible shift in the wind that could come out of the east and blow the fire back in the direction of Ashland.
The Rapid City Journal contributed to this report.