Stump Gulch fire gets a bit close for family’s comfort

Stump Gulch fire nears 10,000 acres
2010-08-23T06:00:00Z 2010-08-24T11:09:02Z Stump Gulch fire gets a bit close for family’s comfortCHELSEA KROTZER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 23, 2010 6:00 am  • 

The Caraway family had a front row seat to the first major wildfire of the season.

It practically knocked on their front door.

Flames from the Stump Gulch fire bore down on their Rapelje Road home on Saturday, but the family of four had prepared.

Their home has a metal roof and cement walls and is surrounded by a lush, green lawn.

Sprinklers were turned toward the house and 3-year-old James’ play set. As the fire gained intensity, the family ignored warnings to leave their home and remained inside.

“Firefighters told us our house was one of the most savable houses,” Shannon Caraway said on Monday. “We are very fortunate that we were prepared.”

They did relocate nearly 300 head of cattle to safer pastures up north.

By Saturday night, the family watched the hills that were covered in smoke just hours after the fire sparked near Springtime Road.

“It was scary for a while, but we are doing OK now,” Caraway said.

The fire came down the hills and within 100 feet of their single-story home before it went over the roof to a lower field on the other side.

When it reached the field, the fire burned a 12-foot-by-14-foot outbuilding to the ground. A nearby field burned. About a half-mile of fencing was burned.

Caraway said she knows the man who caused the fire Saturday morning.

“He was welding some pipe at a pump, and it sparked, and the wind kicked up at the same time and it took off,” Caraway said. “He’s devastated. He’s very distraught is the best way to describe him now.”

But Dwayne Andrews, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation information officer, would not confirm Caraway’s statement.

“To the best of my knowledge, there was a fire investigation that is in progress or has been completed,” Andrews said. “I don’t know the progress.”

The fire began at 1,000 acres on Saturday and grew overnight to 4,500 acres on Sunday. Daytime winds on Sunday pushed the blaze to nearly 10,000 acres.

Sunday’s cold front brought cooler temperatures and rainfall to slow the fire. Andrews said about a half-inch of rain fell.

“It didn’t get any larger today,” said Linda Williams, a Department of Natural Resources and Conservation information officer. “Because of the weather.”

By Monday evening, the fire was 85 percent contained and holding at 9,870 acres. Fire officials opened Rapelje Road to traffic at 8 p.m. On scene were 197 firefighters, one handcrew and 28 engines.

The fire crossed Rapelje Road twice, once to the northeast on Saturday and a second time to the south on Sunday.

“The south end slipped across a little bit, but they caught that,” Andrews said.

Out near the Caraway place on Monday, three firefighters were taking care of a few hot spots where the fire jumped the roadway. In a blackened field, the three used pick axes to break up a few smoldering stumps covered in white ash.

With the fire calmed down, residents who had been told to leave their homes were allowed to return, but Rapelje Road remained closed to through traffic until the evening Monday.

Erin Warren and her two children were told to leave their home on Sunday. Warren lives on the east side of Rapelje Road about two miles south of where the Caraway family lives.

She found shelter at the Caraways’ home until she was allowed to go into town to her mother’s house.

“Nothing on my property got burned,” Warren said.

She wasn’t the only person to find refuge at the Caraway home. Shannon said about 20 people came to their house on Sunday night for an impromptu barbecue because no one was allowed out toward town.

“We had no burger buns, but they got their protein,” Shannon said.

When Tom Thompson’s power went out, he decided to drive out and see the fire for himself. He sat in his pickup just outside town on Sunday night to watch the blaze. He was making sure the wind didn’t blow it back toward his ranch, about 3 miles to the west of Rapelje Road.

Ron Roodell, general manager of Beartooth Electric Co., said several outages occurred Sunday night because of poles burned in the fire.

“The entire Columbus substation was out for a while,” Roodell said. “Northwest Energy’s transmission line tripped off three different times, but they were back in service between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.”

Contact Chelsea Krotzer at or 657-1392.

UPDATE 8:30 a.m.: Rapelje Road has been opened to homeowners who were evacuated Saturday as the Stump Gulch fire roared to life.

The road was reopened today, according to Tammie Mullikin, Stillwater County spokesperson. Mullikin added that there were some reports of fire damage, but no structure losses.

UPDATE 7:45 a.m.: Sunday night rain put a damper on the Stump Gulch fire that grew to about 9,780 acres during the day.

Dwayne Andrews, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation information officer, said the rain helped cool down the fire. Firefighters will focus on mopping up the perimeter of the fire today.

The fire remains uncontained, but Andrews said that designation could change after this morning's flyover, when crews will map and reassess the fire.

Ground crews have already headed out this morning.

"They are going to clean the perimeter of the fire line about 35 feet in," Andrews said. "They will go over that ground thoroughly so there are absolutely no hot spots."

Andrews said they are anticipating wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour, which could actually help get the fire under control.

"A little wind today would not be bad," Andrews said. "Anything that is throwing smoke on the perimeter will make it show up and the guys can go clean it up."

The majority of the fire is burning on the west side of Rapelje Road north of Columbus. The fire jumped the road in one spot on Saturday and again on Sunday afternoon farther south as the winds picked up.

UPDATE 6:15 a.m.: Cooler temperatures and a chance of showers may help crews fighting the Stump Gulch fire today.

The National Weather Service forecasts a 20 percent chance of showers before noon. Skies will be partly cloudy, with a high near 73. West-northwest winds will blow between 16 and 18 mph. It will be mostly clear, with a low around 44. North northwest winds will blow 9 to 16 mph becoming west southwest.

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