Power restored to homes affected by Delphia fire; red flag warnings issued

2012-08-27T07:00:00Z 2012-08-27T18:17:19Z Power restored to homes affected by Delphia fire; red flag warnings issuedBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Power has been restored to several hundred homes that spent the weekend without electricity after the 30,000-acre Delphia fire torched a transmission line.

Pat McKelvey, fire information officer for the Type 2 incident management team in charge of firefighting efforts, said the power was restored to the areas of Melstone and Musselshell on Sunday night.

With that task taken care of, firefighters' main focus Monday is preparing fire lines for weather that is expected to bring conditions ripe for fire growth.

"They had a good night last night on the night shift," McKelvey said. "Today, we're already starting out warmer and drier this morning here and there's a possibility of (thunder) storms. There's a little cloud cover and that’s starting to set us up for this weather event."

That weather event is a predicted cold front pushing through on Wednesday that'll bring high wind gusts. However, Monday and Tuesday are expected to have very high temperatures and extremely low humidity levels, prompting a red flag warning for the area warning of dangerous fire conditions.

"It'll be warmer and drier," McKelvey said. "What else can I say?"

Crews were able to make good progress on the fire's south and west edges, digging and strengthening containment lines.

The fire is most active on its northern and eastern flanks and fire crews worked from the ground while helicopters and heavy air tankers attacked it from above.

Sunday's containment estimate of 45 percent likely won't be updated until another assessment is completed by Monday evening, although firefighters stayed busy all night and into the morning.

"The crews did make some good progress last night," McKelvey said.


OVERNIGHT REPORT: Even as the Delphia fire burning east of Roundup continued to grow, with flames fueled by winds and dry weather scorching about 30,000 acres by midafternoon and leaving a large swath of area without power, crews managed to get it 45 percent contained by the end of Sunday.

The area from Musselshell to Melstone and south to Custer lost power when the fire destroyed a 50-kilovolt transmission line, said Claudia Rapkoch, NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman.

More than 500 NorthWestern customers in Musselshell and Melstone lost power as the fire swept through the area. Rapkoch said three crews — from Billings, Lewistown and Roundup — were able to get power restored to all but 150 to 250 of them Saturday. The terrain is making it difficult for crews to work as fast as they would like, Rapkoch said.

"Obviously, they’re working as quickly and as safely as they can," she said. "But they’re in a very remote, inaccessible part to work in."

A spokesman from the Fergus Electric Cooperative, which also supplies power to the area, said it must wait for NorthWestern to repair the line and that it could be "several days at least" before linemen can get into the area to restore more power.

The number of Fergus Electric customers without power was not available.

Pat McKelvey, fire information officer, said the power issue was a top priority for crews and officials fighting the fire. The outage hampered their ability to pump water for firefighters and livestock.

"The fire suppression operations are cooperating with the private power companies to hasten that power service being back on line," he said in an email.

Reported on Friday afternoon, the lightning-caused fire exploded to 18,000 acres 24 hours later and then again to as much as 30,000 by Sunday. It has destroyed as many as 20 outbuildings.

Tinder-dry fuel, record-low single-digit humidity and erratic movement have made it tough for fire crews to get a handle on the fire as it races through the area.

Almost 370 crew members were on the fire by the end of Sunday, when a Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team took over command of the fire at 6 a.m. McKelvey said resources include five helicopters, three heavy air tankers, 48 engines, 14 tenders, seven dozers, four Type 2 initial attack crews, two Type 2 fire crews and two hot shot crews.

"Resources that we have ordered are arriving and are being employed on the fire," McKelvey said. "Our plan is to continue to operate a full night shift as well as the day shift."

While the fire has been actively burning in timber, it is getting into more open areas as it creeps to the east. In a Sunday evening update, fire officials said that portions of the Delphia fire are now contained with the west and south perimeters secured and dozer lines dug up to Jensen Road.

The fire burned actively on the north and east sides, thanks in large part to fire-friendly weather.

Helicopters and tankers continued to drop water and retardant on the fire from above, including on the Fattig Creek area in hopes of keeping it on the east side.

An evacuation notice was issued to homes and neighborhoods on Fishel Creek Road, and a news release from fire officials said that some firefighters planned to focus on structure protection there and along Hawk Creek Road, which is under pre-evacuation notice.

The fire also churned out smoke into the surrounding area. In Billings, a smoky haze ringed town on all sides. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality declared the air to be unhealthy until about 8 a.m. Three hours later, it was upgraded to "good."

The American Red Cross of Montana has opened a shelter for fire victims at the Friends of the Musselshell Community Center, 100 Main St., in Musselshell. Volunteers and supplies have also been sent to the area.

Anybody in need of assistance is asked to call the Red Cross at 800-272-6668 and ask for the duty officer.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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