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HELENA - A wildfire erupted in the Scratchgravel Hills northwest of Helena, sending a plume of black smoke skyward and prompting the evacuation of about 200 homes Monday.

The Corral Fire, which started about 4:15 p.m., raced northeast from Sharptail Road onto Bureau of Land Management property, then crested the ridge and swept down the mountainside, running toward subdivisions along Green Meadow Drive. Its cause is under investigation, but it had consumed an estimated 250 acres by 7 p.m.

At least three structures on Miner’s Trail reportedly have been burned by the Corral Fire, but it’s unclear at this point how many buildings were lost. One firefighter was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital for treatment for an eye injury.

The scene was controlled chaos as about 150 state and federal crews, along with volunteer firefighters from throughout the Helena valley, brought fire trucks and other equipment up narrow, dead-end gravel roads and driveways, while large cattle trucks and horse trailers packed with livestock, pets and residents’ belongings tried to negotiate past them.

Brown smoke swirled through the air, making it difficult to see at times, while three Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopters worked on dropping water on the fire. Flames were clearly visible just beyond most of the edge of the subdivision.

“We’re trying to make a stand and protect the houses, but you can see what’s happening,” Jerry Shepherd, the West Valley Fire Chief, said while standing at the emergency command post On John G. Mine Road about 6 p.m. “I’m hoping it comes out of the trees and into the grass so we can stop it.”

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