Strong wind gusts overnight pushed a wildfire across Highway 212, forcing evacuations 10 miles east of Crow Agency.
It's unclear how many homes were evacuated early Friday, but at least 13 people were camped out at the Exxon gas station at the junction Interstate 90 and Highway 212 with no where to go.
"The winds picked up so fast and were so strong, acres of fire were just rolling towards us," Pam Garza said. "We had no time to get anything out but ourselves."
Garza, her sister Edwina Perez, and three generations of her family didn't receive evacuation orders, they just piled into the their cars, barely escaping the flames.
All at once the winds picked up, clouds of ash blew over and a wall of flames flooded the landscape, Garza said.
"I don't think anyone saw it coming," she said. "We called the forestry people several times and they said we were safe where we were at. The winds just took the fire and it just got way out of control way fast."
They waited for word from Bighorn County officials for possible places to stay Friday night. Family members told them their homes were still standing as of 1:30 a.m.
"It's been hard just sitting here with no where to go and having no idea if everything was gone or not," Perez said. "But at least we're all safe and together that's what what matters."
5:30 a.m.: Evacuations were ordered for all of Lame Deer and north in Jimtown on Thursday night as the Chalky fire within the Rosebud Complex burned through the area.
Ed Joiner, Northern Cheyenne Tribe Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator, said fire crews were able to keep flames from destroying homes in Lame Deer and the Rosebud Creek area.
"I think we saved all of them," Joiner said Friday. "So far we haven't heard of any losses."
He said erratic winds in the area have frustrated firefighting efforts, but the 50 mph winds that were predicted did not materialize.
He said that the fire jumped Highway 212, which is closed from Crow Agency to Broadus.
He said officials are concerned about other fires in the area, especially a fire northwest of Busby.
OVERNIGHT REPORT: Evacuations were ordered for all of Lame Deer and north in Jimtown on Thursday night as the Chalky fire within the Rosebud Complex has come within miles of town.
“It is right on the edge of town,” Carole Raymond, Rosebud DES coordinator said, “And it’s massive.”
The Chalky fire south-southwest of Colstrip has burned approximately 60,000 acres according to Jack Conner, Type 2 Incident Management Team fire information officer.
Conner confirmed two homes have been lost to the 80,000-acre fire and has forced a road closure of Highway 39 between Lame Deer and Colstrip.
A shelter for evacuees has been set up at St. Labre Indian School in Ashland.
Highway 212 between Crow Agency and Lame Deer was also closed Thursday night when flames jumped the road. Several homes were evacuated in the area.
A Type 2 Incident Management Team has taken over command of the Rosebud Complex of fires burning in Rosebud County.
Conner said the team took over command of the complex, made up of six fires, at about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The complex threatened a pair of subdivisions as it burned on Wednesday. Near the 30-home Wild Horse subdivision, about 35 miles south of Rosebud, crews dug fire lines to prevent fire from reaching homes and no evacuations were ordered.
Fire torched an outbuilding in the Prairie Rose subdivision about five miles south of Rosebud but hadn't damaged any homes as of Thursday morning, Conner said. That fire, called the Juniper fire, is considered 75 percent contained.
Both subdivisions remain threatened by the fires.
Conner said that, with the Type 2 team taking over, about 40 personnel were added to the local, state and federal crews already working the fire and that more are on the way.
As of Thursday night, 12 engines, two Type 1 interagency hot shot crews, three tenders, seven dozers and a local initial attack helicopter are being used on the fire
Aircraft — include helicopters and heavy and single-engine air tankers — are being sent from Billings and Miles City to help with firefighting efforts as well as an additional hot shot crew, six hand crews and about 15 strike teams with five engines each have been ordered.
"You're going to see more resources both at the overhead level and at the suppression level," he said. "We've got orders in for more already."
The fires in the complex are the Juniper fire, at 5,110 acres; the Big John fire, at 1,005 acres; the Sweeney fire, at 9,016 acres; the Beaver fire, at 1,435 acres; the Sand Creek fire, at 758 acres; and the Chalky fire, at 60,000 acres.
Lightning storms earlier in the week sparked nearly 30 fires in Rosebud County and kept local crews scrambling to keep them in check before the largest and most dangerous of them were combined into the Rosebud Complex.
Of special concern to firefighters on Thursday is the weather. According to the National Weather Service, most of Montana, including Rosebud County, is under a red flag warning that cautions of high temperatures and low humidity levels. A cold front is expected to roll into the area later on Thursday and bring with it significant wind shifts and gusts of as fast as 40 mph, which could create explosive fire growth.
The fire was burning northeast until Thursday winds shifted the burn movement south-southeast, Northern Cheyenne BIA information officer LaDawn Saxton said.
"The concern is for that and how we dictate our suppression efforts," Conner said of the weather forecast. "It puts people on high alert but the other issue is if we start getting winds that beef up the fire behavior, we could see more air attack in place to curtail any rapid spread of the fire."
Night operations will be focused on protecting structures around the Diamond X Ranch on the Sand Creek Fire and structures threatened from the Chalky Fire.
That weather also has fire crews on the Crow Reservation nervous as they struggle to make progress on the East Sarpy and West Tullock Creek fires, which merged on Wednesday night, and is now being called the Sarpy Hill Complex fire.
At the end of Wednesday, the fire had burned an estimated 20,000 acres but a statement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Thursday morning said that they grew throughout the night.
After a fly-over Thursday afternoon, the fire has been estimated at 51,000 acres and is about 11 miles northwest from Busby.
Firefighters had trouble getting ahead of the fire on Wednesday as it jumped fire lines and tore through dry fuel and tall grasses.
"These grass and pine fires are far tougher to stop than in a normal year," the BIA release said.
Helicopters and air tankers fought the fire from above on Wednesday and an additional five crews, including a pair of hotshot crews and 20 more engines.
If the winds strike as expected later Thursday night, the plan is to focus on point protection, which involves crews getting in front of the fires to work on specific areas, such as homes and more populated areas, instead of digging fire lines around entire fires.
A Type 2 Incident Management Team took over command of the fire from local and tribal crews at 6 p.m. Thursday night.
In Petroleum County, crews are getting a good handle on a pair of fires there that have blackened about 5,000 acres since they started earlier this week.
The 3,290-acre Chain Buttes fire, burning mostly on Bureau of Land Management Land north of Winnett, only grew by about 60 acres overnight and much of that was likely planned.
"Some of the operations yesterday were to do some burnout operations to complete the firelines," said Karly DeMars, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management's Central and H-Line District office.
The fire is 100 percent contained as of Thursday night.
The South Chain fire, named so because it's burning south of the Chain Buttes fire, has torched about 1,000 acres and is 90 percent contained.
DeMars said that fire lines on both fires held overnight and that the weather, with more humidity, helped out firefighters.