Friendlier weather — cooler temperatures, lower humidity levels, lighter winds and perhaps a spot of rain here and there — on Thursday had officials hopeful that crews would be able to make solid progress on more than a half-dozen wildfires burning in southeastern and south-central Montana.
Early Thursday morning near Ashland, the northeastern corner of the 248,600-acre Ash Creek fire, the largest of those burning, flared up near North Stacey. As of Thursday evening, the fire is 70 percent contained.
“It kind of got alive again up on the Elk Ridge,” said Pat McKelvey, fire information officer. “It was active but it’s still up on that timbered ridge. There were no new evacuations but it was actively burning at night.”
According to the National Weather Service’s Billings office, there was a 30 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms in the Ashland area through the day.
“We’re thinking that that’s going to change a little,” he said. “It’s cooler here, the humidity levels are higher and there’s even rain possible on some parts of some of these fires.”
Crews finished up containment lines south of Highway 212 and are building stronger fire perimeters on the fire’s eastern and northeastern flanks, where it is most active. Surface fire in the more open grassy areas, on the east flank, will continue to spread north and west along Elk Ridge.
As of Thursday evening, it was most active north of Highway 212 in the Sartin Draw and moving north toward the area where the Mill fire burned last year.
Friday morning, Highway 212 will reopen to the public, but at reduced speeds because of the possibility of cattle on the roadway.
That fire was combined with four others nearby to create the Southeastern Montana Complex, which is the second-largest actively burning fire complex in the nation, according to the website www.inciweb.org.
Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester announced on Thursday afternoon that ranchers in Rosebud and Powder River counties who’ve been affected by the Ash Creek fire will be able to use Conservation Reserve Program funds to move livestock to safe pastures.
The announcement said that “ranchers (in those counties) who have lost pastures or fences to fire are eligible to move livestock out of harm’s way to CRP land.”
For more information, ranchers are encouraged to get in touch with their county Farm Service Agency.
In exchange for federal compensation, farmers and ranchers set aside land for the CRP for wildlife and water habitat restoration.
As for the other fires in the complex, the most resources are being sent to the Taylor Creek fire, which was reported on Tuesday about 12 miles southeast of Fort Howes and has burned 46,212 acres.
Dixie Dies, fire information officer, said that fire remains 20 percent contained.
“The emphasis for us Thursday and Friday is the Taylor fire,” she said. “We’ve got quite a few resources there.”
Those resources include 139 people, six dozers, 26 engines and three helicopters.
The weather was also expected to help firefighting efforts on the other fires within the complex.
“The good thing is the weather,” Dies said. “We’re going to have relative humidity of 20 percent or more as opposed to 4-to-6 percent on July 3 and there’s a 50 percent chance that Taylor Creek might get a wetting rain. That’s why we’re putting these resources there, to take advantage while the weather is cooperating.”
Also within the complex, the Horse Creek fire has burned 7,575 acres and is 95 percent contained while the Powerline fire has burned 5,265 acres and is 90 percent contained. Both of those fires are south of Hysham.
Dies said those two fires are in mop-up status.
“We have lines around both of those but we still have some folks patrolling them,” she said.
A new blaze, called the Tidwell fire, was reported Wednesday and grew to about 1,500 acres. The Coal Seam fire, reported five miles northwest of Busby, has burned 527 acres and is completely contained.
McKelvey said that having a Type I team helping with the coordination allows for more efficient firefighting and brings extra resources — and the ability to reallocate them as needed — into the equation.
The Dry Creek fire, which sparked on Tuesday near Laurel, was 75 percent contained.
A 20-person crew and 10 engines remain on scene to mop up hot spots, and Paula Short, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokeswoman, said she expected full containment by Friday.
She estimated the fire’s size at 1,158 acres, down from previous estimates of as much as 2,000. One cabin, a modular home, two garages and a steel building were lost in the fire, which started on Tuesday by sparks from a homeowner using a grinder.
On the other side of Yellowstone County, crews were able to contain a 40-acre grass fire on Squaw Creek Road in Worden. Short credited a quick response by local agencies and help from helicopters and air tankers.
Four miles southeast of Cooke City, fire officials are letting the 220-acre Index Creek fire north of Highway 212 burn out in a rocky area on its west side. Reported on June 26, the fire appears to have been caused by a downed power line.
On the Crow Reservation, officials say they were able to prevent many possible fires on the Fourth of July by establishing a central location for fireworks use.
A news release from the Bureau of Indian Affairs said Crow citizens gathered at the rodeo grounds in Crow Agency to light off fireworks.
“Four small fires started in the controlled area anyway, but in other years, crews have raced to 30 or 40 fires across the reservation,” the release said.
Through Thursday morning, crews still responded to and were able to control five other fireworks-caused fires on the reservation.