Highway 212 still closed, but residents will be allowed back in when conditions improve

2012-06-30T06:30:00Z 2012-09-07T12:57:33Z Highway 212 still closed, but residents will be allowed back in when conditions improvesolp@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Highway 212 is expected to remain closed because of hazardous fire activity, but when conditions improve, law enforcement will allow family members affected by the Ash Creek fire to return to pick up personal items. They will only be allowed in with a permit from the Northern Cheyenne tribal headquarters in Lame Deer.

The Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority also will transport families who have been displaced by the fire to pick up personal items. To use that service, call the housing authority at 406-477-6419.

The tribe will keep staff on duty at its headquarters on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to help displaced families.

The point of contact for donations to help people affected by the fire now is the Northern Cheyenne tribal office. For information, call the tribe's headquarters at 406-477-6284 or 406-477-8259.

Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus toured the Ash Creek wildfire on Saturday. They received a briefing at the Ash Creek fire's incident command post in Colstrip before traveling to Lame Deer to meet with tribal leaders, displaced tribal members and Red Cross volunteers.

"My heart goes out to the folks who have lost their homes these last few days, but I know they'll fight back with the support of their families, friends and communities," Tester said.


Rep. Denny Rehberg hopped in a 24-foot Billings Food Bank truck filled with necessities on Saturday afternoon and headed to Lame Deer to meet and talk with residents affected by the volatile 156,000-acre Ash Creek Fire.

“I won’t have an opportunity to go to the Dahl fire or up to Helena, so it’s helpful to be able to get out to at least to one fire and talk to the residents,” Rehberg said, before getting into the truck for the 100-mile drive to the small Northern Cheyenne Reservation town.

He will take the load of food, personal-care items, baby formula and other supplies to the Lame Deer Boys and Girls Club, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter.

Rehberg said he hopes to talk with ranchers and farmers whose livelihoods will be threatened by the fire and to others who lost their homes.

Before leaving for Lame Deer, Rehberg met at the Billings Interagency Dispatch Center with state and federal officials to get an update on the state's fires. Rehberg said after the briefing that one of the things that surprised him was the number of fires that had been manmade vs. naturally-caused.

“What surprised me was that 80 percent of the fires had been manmade,” he said, acknowledging that the figure accounted for less than 35,000 acres of the estimated 330,000 acres that have burned.

But he made the point as a caution for people who in the next few days will be shooting off fireworks.

"We're coming into the Fourth of July season and some people don't think a firecracker can start a fire," Rehberg said.

He also was shocked by the fact that the Ash Creek fire up blew up from 5,000 to 100,000 acres in less than 24 hours.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a pretty bad season,” Rehberg said. “This is way too early to be having this kind of problem.”

As of Saturday morning, the Ash Creek fire has grown to 156,288 acres and is 25 percent contained. That increase comes after the fire made significant movement to the east on Friday.

An infrared flight completed Friday night shows that the most active and hottest part of the fire is on the east side, said fire spokesman Pat McKelvey. The fire remains south of Beaver Creek, west of Beaver Creek Road and north of Highway 212.

Saturday's weather may give slight relief to firefighters, McKelvey said. Temperatures are forecast for the low- to mid-90s, with low relative humidity and winds predicted to drop to 5 to 15 mph.

Fire crews will try to take advantage of the decreased winds to strengthen fire lines and do mop up on the main fire and nearby spot fires, McKelvey said. On the more active east side of the fire, crews will focus on trying to slow the rate of spread to the east and keep the fire north of Highway 212. Crews  will also continue protecting structures in the area.

The evacuation order for the town of Ashland has been lifted, but other evacuation orders remain in place.

Five activity remains moderate on the 700-acre Coal Seam fire, about three miles north of Busby, and is in mop-up and patrol status. That fire is 80 percent contained.

As of 8:30 a.m., the town of Broadus was still without electricity as crews work to repair power lines that serve the community.

Powder River County Sheriff John Blain said a late run by the Ash Creek fire took out more power poles Friday.

Blain said fire crews and a half dozen fire engines helped save a house and two ranch buildings on Friday night in the Wilbur Creek area near East Fork Otter Creek Road. Several of the ranch's outbuildings and corrals were burned in the fire, which was driven by strong west winds, he said.

"The fire is unpredictable and the head is huge and wide," he said. He estimated that the Ash Creek fire is now 30 miles long and 20-to-25 miles wide

No occupied houses have been lost in Powder River County, he said, but the fire has turned the ground "black right up to the foundations" of many residences.

He said many old buildings, haystacks and hay meadows have burned.

"It is just pitiful. There's nothing to hay, and now it is burning."

"People are banding together, pulling together to help each other," he said. "I can't even tell you how many people are working on the fire.

"A ton of people have stepped up. I'm impressed with our people. We love our little town."

He said a shelter set up Tuesday night at the school gym took in 56 people. By Wednesday night, it housed six.

In a 6:30 a.m. update, Incident Commander Tom Heintz said the Ash Creek fire made a signficant run on Friday moving southeast from the Ash Creek drainage toward Highway 212 and Wilbur Creek drainage. Residents in the Wilbur, Whitetail, Beaver Creek and East Fork of Otter Creek areas were advised to leave their homes immediately.

"It was very hot, very dry and very windy yesterday," Heintz said. He expects the 110,000-acre size of the blaze to be revised upward Saturday.

Fire spokesman Pat McKelvey said fire crews working through the night "will try to get ahead of it" Saturday on the east side of the blaze in anticipation of a cold front moving in Sunday, bringing gusty winds.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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