Pine Creek fire at 12,000 acres; at least 5 homes lost

2012-08-31T09:15:00Z 2013-02-12T21:56:49Z Pine Creek fire at 12,000 acres; at least 5 homes lostStory by ZACH BENOIT photos by LARRY MAYER zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

9:15 A.M.: Officials have closed East River Road from its junction with Highway 89 at the north end to Pine Creek Campground Road on the south.

Officials with the Gallatin National Forest put in place a closure order for national forest lands from West Boulder River west to the forest boundary in Paradise Valley, and from the forest boundary south of Livingston to George Lake. On the east, the closure order includes the Tumble Creek drainage which is a tributary of the West Boulder River.


OVERNIGHT REPORT: NEAR LIVINGSTON — Standing in a small gravel lot where Trail Creek Road meets Highway 89, Shawn Marsh and Stacy Martin gazed off to the east, where a blanket of thick white smoke hung in the Paradise Valley.

A few miles down the highway, Park County sheriff’s deputies and a Montana Highway Patrol trooper blocked the turnoff to where the 12,000-acre-plus Pine Creek fire tore through the Pine Creek area Wednesday, destroying at least five residences and numerous outbuildings.

Marsh and Martin rent a home on the Pine Creek Methodist Church property, where they live with their five children from previous relationships.

The couple knows their home made it through — as did the church. But most of the other buildings on the property burned to the ground, Martin said. They were parked along the side of the road, watching smoke fill the valley and waiting to find out when they could go home after a frantic effort to get out the day before.

“I saw the smoke and that’s when I started scrambling,” Martin said. “It was only 30 or 40 minutes before the flames were at our neighbor’s house. It was going very fast. The wind was gusting like crazy and when we left, the flames were 20, 30, 40 feet in the air.”

The fire broke out on private land at about 2 p.m. Wednesday. Driven by gusts of as much as 40 mph, it quickly exploded. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

“Oh, man, it was windy,” Martin said. “It was a laundry day and it was so warm and the wind was ripping so hard, I’d hang the laundry on a line and it’d dry in five or 10 minutes.”

Karen Tuscano, a U.S. Forest Service public information officer, said the fire grew to about 12,000 acres from about 5,000 Thursday.

County officials ordered evacuations for Deep Creek Road, Deep Creek Bench Road, Deep Creek South Road and Pool Creek Road. Evacuations are also in place for south of Pool Creek to Barney Creek. People who can’t access their mailboxes because of closed roads can pick up their mail at the post office annex on Jefferson Street in Livingston after 10 a.m. Friday.

Gallatin National Forest officials also issued a closure order for National Forest System lands in the area from the West Boulder River west to the forest boundary in Paradise Valley and from the forest boundary south of Livingston to George Lake and east to the Tumble Creek drainage, a tributary of the West Boulder River.

Clyde Funk and his mother, Avis Funk, were at his home in Livingston when they heard about the fire.

Before the fire exploded, they took his pickup truck out to the Pine Creek home where Avis Funk has lived for 50 years to grab a few belongings and mementos.

Within about 30 minutes, the flames were licking up toward Avis’ home and her son had to yank her out of the house.

“If it hadn’t been for Clyde, I probably would’ve burned,” she said. “It was all so overwhelming. I’ve been there 50 years and I’ve never, never seen a fire like it.”

On their way out, the fire jumped East River Road, blocking the way.

“We literally had to drive through a wall of flame,” Clyde Funk said.

The mother and son spent Thursday afternoon tracking down updates on the fire after learning that Avis’ home was spared, even though several outbuildings on the property were destroyed.

Marian Hjortsberg lives in a cabin on Pine Creek Road and was one of the 70 people who fled their homes.

She said she was inside with the windows shut and the air conditioning on when two friends banged on her door and told her the fire was coming.

“I had to flee without time to even grab a toothbrush,” she said. “There were huge plumes of smoke everywhere. They were very close.”

She did manage to grab her cat, some photo albums and a few other personal belongings before fleeing and later learned from a friend that her home appears to have been spared.

Thursday morning, Hjortsberg tried to return home to assess the damage but was turned away by sheriff’s deputies and a roadblock.

Others had the same idea and were also turned away. Many of them, including Martin, Marsh and Hjortsberg, ended up at the Livingston Civic Center, where the American Red Cross of Montana set up a shelter for people affected by the fire.

By noon, nearly 20 people had gathered there. Volunteer Shelley Kurschner said that, while nobody stayed at the shelter overnight, many were using it as a sort of information center or a place to drop off donations.

Tuscano said she planned to provide updated information sheets at the shelter when possible.

Officials are asking the public to avoid the Pine Creek area, where entry roads are already blocked by law enforcement, and the Park County Rural Fire station, which is acting as a command center, to let fire officials work.

The fire kicked clouds of thick white and gray smoke, making for low visibility and causing logistical headaches for fire officials.

Marsh and Martin said they know of at least three homes that burned down. Tuscano said it’s too early to tell exactly how many houses and buildings burned, although she did say that the Pine Creek school, café and church are still standing.

Tuscano also addressed a widespread rumor that several deaths have been reported.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Nobody has been lost on the fire, although there were a few minor burns and injuries.”

On Thursday, helicopters, air tankers, a dozer and a 20-person crew focused on the southern end of the fire, which made a one-mile run to the south. Night crews will focus on monitoring hot spots.

The fire is burning most actively up timbered mountainsides about nine miles south of Livingston.

Pouncin’s Northern Rocky Type 1 fire management team was to be briefed on the fire Thursday night and will take over command as early as Friday.

Standing at the Trail Creek Road turnoff, Shawn Marsh swiped at his cellphone’s touch screen, scrolling through photos of the fire that friends posted on Facebook. One showed a large, two-story white house lit up from the inside by flames and belching out black smoke. Others showed the home he and Martin share with their children, the ground around it blackened but the home still standing.

Many more showed the property around their home and the church.

“It looks like it took everything,” he said. “It looks like somebody bulldozed it and just cleared everything out.”

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