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Strong winds from a thunder cell passed over the Pine Creek fire area on Saturday and boosted fire activity and its spread. Evacuations are under way north of McDonald Creek and east to the perimeter.

The plan for Saturday is to construct direct and indirect fire lines and conduct burnouts as the opportunity arises, according to fire officials. Structure protection will continue around private property and crews will secure the Forest Service Pine Creek campground and adjacent private property.

The growth potential for the fire remains extreme.

Some residents were allowed emergency access to their homes on Saturday morning. They were escorted to their homes by Sheriff's Office officials.

6 A.M.: Fire officials say the Pine Creek fire has burned 9,300 acres as of Friday night. It is 5 percent contained and 195 people are assigned to the fire. Light afternoon rain helped decrease the fire activity but increased the amount of smoke in the valley.

OVERNIGHT REPORT: LIVINGSTON — Mike Pontarelli is going to church on Sunday.

He will give thanks that the Pine Creek fire spared his home.

"I figured if it's still standing, I'll go," he said Friday.

Others haven't been so lucky. The 12,000-acre fire burning in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston has destroyed five homes and 10 outbuildings since it started Wednesday afternoon along the banks of the Yellowstone River, just across from where Darel Creason and his family run a dairy farm. Officials have not yet determined the cause of the blaze.

"By the time I saw it, it had already climbed to the top of the bank," Creason said, pointing to the steep riverbank just east of his home while pausing from work on a tractor. "In an hour it was already going across the (Pine Creek) road. In about four hours it went from here to the top of the mountain.

"I don't know how you'd ever fight a fire like that."

Livingston firefighter Jason Cajune was one of the first on the scene. Along with five other engine crews, the firemen patrolled the small burg of Pine Creek, driving up and down the East River Road and side roads on the smoke-dimmed afternoon. When the fire advanced, they would back off. When the heat and flames abated, they would move in to try and douse the flames. Cajune said he also called in aerial bombers to drop retardant on homes. The orange powder still coated homes, mailboxes and the roadway.

"A tree would go up and there would be flames across the road so we'd pull back and wait for the heat to go down," he said.

All the while, explosions from propane tanks and vehicles' gas tanks were punctuating the eerie scene with loud booms, Cajune said.

"I give the firefighters credit because it didn't take them long to get the planes over here and bomb it," Creason said.

Pontarelli's home was right on the leading edge of the advancing inferno. When he got the call to evacuate, he ran into his house, looked around and was stumped at what to take. So he decided instead to stay and make a stand using three garden hoses. His wife, Deb, fled in the family car through a wall of flames that blocked the road.

"I was in the car hysterical," she said.

The Pontarellis had relocated to the postcard-pretty rural area between the Yellowstone River and Absaroka Mountains about five years ago from Chicago. The home is located just behind the Pine Creek Cafe, a popular dining spot that features musical entertainment on weekends and also rents cabins. The fire made a run close to the cafe, with flames lighting the cedar shake roof of a small espresso stand next door. But Cajune and his fellow firefighters were able to soak the flames and save the structures.

Meanwhile, Mike Pontarelli was running between his three garden hoses, spraying water on flames as they ignited on his lawn, in his wood pile and around his property. Then the wind miraculously shifted and the fire turned east, making a run toward the pine mountains and leaving hot ash and charred trees, vehicles and buildings in its wake.

Pontarelli was amazed.

"If the tops of those trees had started going up, I wouldn't have hung around," he said, pointing to a group of fir trees not far from his garage.

He had made the decision that if the trees ignited, he would jump in the nearby ditch from which he was pumping water after the power went out at about 6 p.m. Luckily, that never played out. At about 7 or 8 p.m. a fire engine appeared out of the smoke and flames.

"They were helpful," Pontarelli said. "I was glad when they showed up."

Rumors flew almost as fast as the flames. Ned Shapiro, whose sister is Deb Pontarelli, said he heard that his Pine Creek Cafe had burned to the ground.

"So I wasn't expecting to see anything," he said. "I didn't find out until yesterday that everything was OK. But I knew there wasn't anybody in it to get hurt, which was a relief."

Creason said he heard rumors that the fire had destroyed Pine Creek's church, as well as the cafe.

"The first rumors we heard was that everything burned up there," he said.

Deb Pontarelli said their home may have been partially protected by the cleanup work they have done around their property, removing trees close to the home and keeping the lawn and vegetation well watered and green.

It probably helped, too, that they have a metal roof on their house.

"So we did try," she said. "But that doesn't help in a big fire."

What the fire burns and what it doesn't burn seems incredibly random, Mike Pontarelli noted. One house down the road was burned, but both places on either side of it were OK.

"I'm just glad I bought an extra pump this year," he said.

The Pine Creek fire moved south Friday, and more evacuations were ordered in the George Creek area. The fire was also active on the north side and burned to the top of the ridge above Deep Creek. About a tenth of an inch of rain fell on the fire late Friday afternoon. The rain decreased fire activity but increased smoke in the valley.

East River Road is closed from the north junction at Highway 89 down to just south of Barney Creek. Pine Creek Road is also closed. Deep Creek Road, Deep Creek Bench Road, and Deep Creek Road South Fork are still closed to residents, along with the area from Pool Creek down south to Barney Creek and Pine Creek Road.

Residents with proof of residency that do not live in those areas will be allowed to access only through the north road block at the junction of East River Road and Highway 89.

People who live in the Livingston Peak area and along Swingley Road to the border of Park and Sweet Grass counties are under a pre-evacuation notice. That means they should be ready to leave their homes if needed.




Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.