Crews work to contain Wilson fire near Roundup

2012-09-23T22:30:00Z 2012-10-03T15:25:53Z Crews work to contain Wilson fire near RoundupBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

6 A.M.: U.S. Highway 87 south of Roundup has been reopened, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

There is a 35 mph speed limit posted from milepost 38 to the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Highway 87. Fire equipment is entering the roadway through this area.


OVERNIGHT REPORT: The Wilson fire south of Roundup spread to 4,200 acres Sunday as persistent winds blew westward. 

In places, the fire reached the edge of Highway 87, which connects Roundup and Billings. The road had been open to local traffic as neighbors fled the fires path and others rushed to help. Smoke and flames closed the road to all Sunday. The fire is believed to be human-caused.

"There are some places where the fire has come right up next to the road, but it hasn't crossed yet," said Bryan Adolph, Musselshell County commissioner, who helped out at the disaster center.

Motorists were advised to use Highway 3 between Billings and Lavina and Highway 12 between Lavina and Roundup.

There are no reports of primary structures destroyed by the fire burning about five miles south of Roundup on the highway's east side and north of Johnnys Coal Road. About 50 households were ordered to evacuate Saturday afternoon, while another 50 were put on notice.

Fire crews were doing some back-burning beside the highway to keep the flames at a distance, Adolph said. There were concerns that the fire could make a serious advance if it jumped the highway.

A 150-man firefighting crew, composed of members from small, regional fire departments and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, managed to cut segments of fire line along 5 percent of the perimeter and were working to connect the lines at the end of the day.

Shortly before noon, Musselshell County called on surrounding counties for more firefighting engines. The Bull Mountain fire station, 10 miles south of Roundup on Highway 87, was to be the rallying point.

There were three helicopters dropping water buckets on the blaze and two fire-retardant bombers laying a fat, red chemical blanket along the Wilson fire's edge. Air-dropped retardant slurry reduces wildfire intensity and slows its expansion, decreasing risks to firefighters on the ground.

An unknown number of property owners in the area worked to protect their land as well, Adolph said. There are homes in the area along No. 2 Mine Road and Johnnys Coal Road, including two subdivisions. Adolph said about 100 people live in the area.

Fire has plagued the piney landscape surrounding Roundup off and on since late June, with about 90 other fires in Musselshell County during one of the worst droughts on record. Locals are getting used to offering whatever help they can.

A Red Cross shelter is open at St. Benedict's Church in Roundup, where cots are out and food is available.

On Saturday night, as the Wilson fire quickly spread, Kimberly Schrepfer drove into the area with a horse trailer to help rescue whatever animals she could. Armed with a bucket of grain, she and a friend coaxed a half-dozen horses from a piney hill and relocated them to Schrepfer's Red Top Ranch. Schrepfer said she was offering space to anyone with a horse displaced by the Wilson fire, just as she offered space in July to victims of the Dahl fire, which destroyed more than 70 homes.

"There were six of them, but one of them was a mare with a baby and we couldn't catch her," Schrepfer said. "We caught everybody else.

"There was another lady there and she rounded up some goats and I think there were chickens. We did it in the dark."

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