Dolly McMaster was just getting ready to eat her dinner Tuesday night when she glanced out the kitchen window and saw something wispy and gray among the pines on the Spokane Hills mountainside.
Moments later she saw the bright orange flames.
“And boy, did it go after that,” she said Tuesday evening, as she watched state and federal firefighting crews, as well as volunteers from at least six rural fire departments set up a mobile wildfire command post in her yard. “In five minutes it was over the hill and it was going fast.”
Kathy Bushnell, the Helena National Forest public information officer, said the Spokane Hills Fire burned an estimated 100 acres Tuesday night and was only about 10 percent contained as of 9 p.m. It was burning in grass and timber on the southern end of the Spokane Bench southeast of Helena, only a few hundred yards uphill from the historic McMaster homestead.
“We have about 80 personnel on it,” added David Nunn, the incident commander for the Helena National Forest. “The wind is the main driver of the fire, which is pushing it easterly. We have roads on both sides of it, which are acting as barriers.”
The fire was called in about 6:45 p.m., with the winds blowing the flames away from the McMaster house and toward Canyon Ferry Reservoir. The property is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which bought the land from the McMaster family about a decade ago, and no other homes were in the fire’s path.
However, the flames were licking around about four or five metal towers on the mountainside, and crews were trying to protect them from damage. Dolly McMaster said one was a cell phone tower, one was a transmitter for the nearby railroad and another was for a power company.
“I don’t think it’s burned the towers, at least that we know of,” Nunn said.
Initial reports said that five power poles near the towers had been destroyed.
Nunn said no one was at the McMaster Ranch trailhead when the fire started, and Broadwater County Sheriff Brenda Ludwig is investigating the cause. It’s in an area hard-hit by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, where dead trees are interspersed with live pines.
Nunn said the Spokane Hills Fire was burning toward where the Bucksnort Fire passed through in 2000, which should slow it down.
He noted that three helicopters from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation were dropping buckets of water on the blaze, which aided the efforts of volunteers from Broadwater County, Lewis and Clark County, Tri-Lakes, Eastgate, East Valley and West Valley.
The helicopters stopped work about 9 p.m. and are expected to resume work on extinguishing the fire on Wednesday. While some ground crews were released from the scene Tuesday night, others were expected to stay overnight.