More evacuations are being ordered due to heavy winds and increased activity with the Corral Fire in the Scratchgravel Hills northwest of Helena. Officials remind all those not involved in firefigthing to stay away from the fire, and all roads in the area.
NOON UPDATE: Firefighters worked overnight to beat back a wildfire that destroyed four homes north of Helena, but officials said another 150 could be under threat if windy weather expected Tuesday fans the flames.
About 200 homes in the Helena Valley remained under evacuation orders. Lewis and Clark County sheriff's deputies were escorting some residents back to their houses to pick up medications and other items.
Cynthia Piearson, one of those residents hoping to go back, said she was fixing food for herself and her son when a law enforcement officer knocked on the door Monday afternoon.
"He said, 'There's a fire in the area. You have a few minutes to gather your most important belongings and then you need to evacuate,'" Piearson said.
She gathered documents, a computer and cellphones and checked into a hotel in Helena. She said her husband was on a camping trip and she has been unable to contact him.
Sheriff Leo Dutton said the fire was an accident but declined to specify the cause. Temperatures in the 90s, low humidity and strong winds caused it and three other fires in southwestern Montana to spread quickly.
West Valley Fire Rescue Chief Jerry Shepherd said the 1,400-acre was mostly uncontained. His co-leader of the team responding to the fire, John Huston of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said crews were able to directly attack the blaze around midnight, but the fire also was in roadless areas that make access a problem.
Owen Johnson, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter who was taking a break at the fire command center set up in a church, estimated that he had been working for 24 hours straight.
"I started digging line and did some burning off of my line, and I was up all night," he said.
He and other firefighters ate donated coffee, donuts and bananas in the shade during a short break before they returned to the lines.
"Every fire is different. They all pose their own risks and challenges. This one is early in the season, there are houses involved and it's right next to Helena," Johnson said.
Crews were working to keep the fire from spreading south and east toward residential areas. To the west are stands of trees killed by mountain pine beetles that could help the fire take off, Dutton said.
Firefighters were trying to do as much as they could before winds kick up to 50 mph as expected Tuesday. The fire had been moving at a clip of a half-mile and hour, and with a pickup in the wind, another 150 homes could be threatened, Huston said.
"It all depends on Mother Nature," he said.
To the south, two fires totaling more than 3,100 acres were burning about 30 miles apart in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. One that prompted evacuations of about a dozen homes in a rural community southeast of Whitehall grew to 2,500 acres. Authorities were forced to ground two helicopters that were working the fire because of the wind.
About 30 miles away, north of Whitehall, a separate fire scorched 682 acres of rugged, remote terrain and crews have to contend with rattlesnakes that could be in the area, according to the Forest Service.
Twenty miles northeast of Ennis, a 2,300-acre blaze was 10 percent contained. Bureau of Land Management officials said that fire was human caused.
State wildlife officials have closed two nearby fishing access sites on the Madison River and pilot cars were guiding traffic through the area.
MORNING REPORT: HELENA -- Officials in Lewis and Clark County say at least four homes have been destroyed in a 750-acre fire north of Helena.
West Valley Fire Rescue Chief Jerry Shepard said on Tuesday morning that crews working through the night made some gains, but the fire is not contained.
Shepard says crews were preparing for a major wind shift on Tuesday afternoon that could bring gusts up of to 50 mph. John Huston of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says, if that happens, 150 additional homes could be threatened.
The fire started at 4:15 p.m. Monday. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says the fire was accidental, but declined to say what caused it.
About 200 homes have been evacuated. Authorities were escorting some residents to gather their belongings on Tuesday morning.
Officials said at least 200 homes were evacuated in the face of the swift, swirling Corral Fire Monday afternoon and evening.
An evacuation center was set up at the Helena First Assembly of God Church at 2210 Dodge Ave., where a team of Red Cross volunteers was on hand to offer comfort kits.
Jim White, disaster action team chair for Lewis and Clark County, said the kits are designed for people who didn’t get to gather necessities from their homes.
That was good news for Mike and Tannia Stebbins who moved into the home they are finishing on 12 acres in Treasure Canyon just under a year ago. They were happy to take a comfort kit that included toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and shampoo.
Both Mike and Tannia are state employees. Mike was headed home after he finished worked at 4 p.m. Monday. He assumed the smoke was from slash piles until he saw all the emergency vehicles. Tannia was still at work and because there are no windows in her office, she had no idea of the fire burning near her home and potential evacuation until she started receiving phone calls.
Mike got home and grabbed their puppy, Bella, but Tannia never made it home.
“If it goes, we won’t miss it too long,” Mike said trying to make light of the situation. “We will just start over.”
Tannia said there is little they can do but hope.
“It just makes me sick,” she said.
Mike said he didn’t think twice when the evacuation started.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “Those things move pretty quickly and the wind was blowing.”
Officials said evacuation orders were sent by reverse 911 dialing to homes in the fire area. They said late Monday that it may be three or four days before some evacuees could return to their homes.
Two Independent Record employees live in the fire area and shared stories Monday evening.
Crystal Gray lives on Kurt Allen Court. The area was evacuated but Gray and her husband chose to stay, as did a number of neighbors.
“Nobody really has left,” Gray said. “We’ve just been watching it, and if it comes closer, we will go.”
Shifting winds added to the confusion.
“We are fine but it’s scary,” Gray said about 7:45 p.m. She estimated that the fire came within a quarter mile of her home. Flames reached within a hundred yards of house at the end of the rural road.
“It’s bad,” Gray said. “There is one structure; we think it’s a home, that went.”
She estimated the burned structure to be about a half-mile from her home.
Gray and Shawna Swanz said helicopters with buckets dropping water appeared to help keep the flames from homes near where they live.
“It had come off the hills and started to hit the grass,” said Swanz, who lives at 7 Dogbone Road, with her husband and cats. “It started to peter out there.”
The helicopters helped keep flames from coming over the railroad tracks. When the evacuation order came, Swanz didn’t hesitate.
“It was really, really smoky,” she said. “It was scary. We could see flames and I got my papers and cats and said, ‘We are getting out of here.’”
Total Dynamic Veterinary Clinic offered to provide a temporary home for animal evacuees of the fire in a rolling, rural area northwest of Helena.
At about 9 p.m., the clinic had plenty of takers on the offer.
“Dogs, cats, cattle and a couple of horses and a few other things,” said a man who answered the phone, adding he had no time to talk or share his name.
Helena residents Raina Hayes and Rebecca Menard stopped into the church Tuesday evening offering to lend a hand.
“This could turn out to be a big casualty and they could use help,” Menard said.
“And extra pair of hands is always good,” Hayes added.