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Residents returned to the Pine Crest subdivision near Columbus on the third day of a wildfire that has destroyed two structures and continues to burn.

Firefighters made headway Monday to contain the 3,000-acre fire and a separate blaze near Red Lodge that were sparked during a record-breaking windstorm over the weekend.

Containment of the Pine Crest fire increased to 45 percent by evening, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. More than 100 firefighters were assigned to the fire, supported by 24 engines and three helicopters.

But hazardous weather conditions will resume Tuesday and Wednesday with high temperatures, low humidity and sustained winds in the forecast. The National Weather Service in Billings issued a red-flag warning to last through 9 p.m. Wednesday.

A standing-room-only crowd of Pine Crest residents, some of whom had been sleeping in cars since Saturday, learned they could return to their homes at a morning briefing in the Columbus Fire Station on Tuesday morning.

Fire lines now insulate most of the Pine Crest subdivision, said Asano Otsu, a public information officer.

The fire isn’t growing or moving, she said. But some of the homes are not separated from the fire with the dirt paths firefighters are digging, and it’s been a factor in the decision to limit access to the area.

“The first thing is safety concerns,” she said. “Then let’s get residents back in their homes, get them safe and restocked and so they can have privacy too. This is a really emotional time.”

Residents of the subdivision received green paper passes to keep in their vehicles so they could drive past a police roadblock on the corner of Pine Crest Road and Highway 10.

Nearly 90 homes were affected by the evacuation notices that began Saturday. But some people remained in their homes despite the order and drove out of the subdivision for the first time since the fire started.

Chris Hawkins has lived in Pine Crest for 15 years with his family.

Hawkins said his neighbors left when the evacuations began, and he stayed to care for their horses in addition to his own.

“Number one, we got horses,” he said. “Number two, all we got is that house. So like my dad says, we’re going to defend it till the end.”

Hawkins said he didn’t leave but he didn’t stay in the subdivision either. A few rugged trails lead out of the area and authorities weren’t monitoring them. He left whenever he needed to and was able to return without incident.

Two structures have been destroyed by the fire. One firefighter received minor injuries during the initial attack Saturday afternoon.

West Fork fire

Crews made “good progress” Monday fighting the West Fork fire near Red Lodge, with containment now estimated at 30 percent, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The 400-acre fire is burning about two miles southwest of the town along the West Fork of Rock Creek.

More than 60 firefighters built fire lines and tended hot spots Monday, assisted by a helicopter.

The fire threatens 30 structures, but no evacuations are in place and the road to Red Lodge Mountain ski area is open.


General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.