A private drone flying in the area of the Fritz fire halted firefighting aircraft operations and left the blaze standing at zero percent contained Friday night.
Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Bradley Shoemaker said the wildfire size was estimated at 600 to 1,000 acres.
“If it’s out here tomorrow and we find it, that person is going to be charged with a federal crime,” Shoemaker said.
He said air operations were shut down because of the drone sometime between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Speaking at 10:40, Shoemaker would not put a figure on containment but said the fire remained between 600 and 1,000 acres. He said that lines were being built along the east side of the fire and that crews were make a “direct attack” on the west side of the fire.
Eighteen structures were evacuated using the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office reverse 911 feature, Shoemaker said, adding that road closures and evacuations will remain through the night.
The fire, which was first reported about 5:30 p.m., jumped the Yellowstone River sometime around 8 p.m., and Shoemaker said the fire was spreading north but that the fire appeared to have slowed down in that area. Speaking at 9:15 p.m., Shoemaker said he expected an approaching shift in winds to begin moving the fire west. The fire originally began in wheat fields south of Fritz Road in the area of Duck Creek Road and moved north of Fritz before it jumped the Yellowstone River, Shoemaker said.
Road closures include Fritz Road, Duck Creek Road, areas south of Frontage Road and parts of Neibauer Road, Shoemaker said.
Assistance for the fire had come from as far away as Columbus, Shoemaker said. Blue Creek Volunteer Fire Department is the lead agency said Laurel Deputy Fire Chief Corey McIlvain who said the fire began to the south and west of the intersection of Fritz Road and Keller Road. McIlvain urged people to stay away from the fire for their own safety. He said the wheat field may have provided the initial fuel for the fire.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder also warned that spectators needed to stay away for their own safety. Emergency crews from his department and the Montana Highway Patrol continued to push residents and onlookers back farther as the fire spread throughout the afternoon and early evening.
Linder said there were multiple power lines down, including one across Fritz Road, as well as others to the north of it.
Responding agencies included The Blue Creek Volunteer Fire Department, the Billings Fire Department, the Joliet Fire Department, the Laurel Fire Department and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Temperature and winds are contributing to erratic fire behavior,” McIlvain said.
As the fire grew, residents went toward the fire to get photographs, rushed to get belongings and several people could be seen corralling horses that had been in a nearby field, loading them onto a trailer.
Capt. Pepper Valdez with the Billings Fire Department said some hay bales in the area were also on fire.
Crews blocked off Rudio Drive near Duck Creek, where a few dozen onlookers gathered to watch the fire efforts.
One woman came out of her house to urge a few dozen people watching the fire to clear the road so she could move her belongings out of her house.
Smoke clouded the area and plumes were visible from Interstate 90.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Billings Fire Department fought a blaze that was on the site of the former Cetrone Photo Studio at the intersection of Shiloh and Central avenues.