Wildfire bears down on Montana towns as West burns

by Joseph K. Clark

LAME DEER, Mont. — A wildfire bore down on rural southeastern Montana towns Thursday as hot, dry weather throughout the West drove flames through more than a dozen states.

Several thousand people remained under evacuation orders in Montana as the Richard Spring Fire advanced across the sparsely-populated Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

Meanwhile, California’s Dixie Fire — which started July 13 and is the largest wildfire burning in the nation — threatened a dozen small communities in the northern Sierra Nevada even though fire lines mainly corraled its southern end.

The fire has burned 790 square miles (2,000 square kilometers), destroyed some 550 homes, and nearly obliterated the town of Greenville last week. It was 30% contained.

Primed by heavy, swirling winds and hot temperatures, the Montana fire spread in multiple directions, torching trees and sending embers that propelled the flames across the dry landscape.

The blaze began Sunday, and winds gusting up to 56 miles per hour (90 kilometers per hour) caused it to explode across more than 260 square miles (670 square kilometers) by Thursday.

Wildfire bears

The fire had crept within about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of the eastern edge of the evacuated town of Lame Deer, leaping over a highway where officials had hoped to stop it.

After a second fire ignited just west of the town and quickly spread, tribal officials late Wednesday urged residents who did not heed the initial evacuation order to flee. Busses were being brought in to move people to a school in the community of Busby, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away.

Officials said firefighters worked early Thursday morning on hills around Lame Deer to keep the blaze from destroying houses.

There were no immediate damage reports about buildings. Rancher Jimmy Peppers sat on his horse east of town, watching an orange glow grow near the site of his house as the night wore on.

“I didn’t think it would cross the highway, so I didn’t even move my farm equipment,” said Peppers, who spent the afternoon herding his cattle onto a neighbor’s pasture closer to town. “I don’t know if I’ll have a house in the morning.”

Thick plumes of smoke rose from behind a tree-covered ridgeline just above the house. The town of about 2,000 people is home to the tribal headquarters and several subdivisions and is surrounded by steep, rugged forests. A few miles from town, Krystal Two Bulls and some friends stuck around to clear brush from her yard in hopes of protecting it from the flames.

“We’re packed and loaded, so if we have to go, we will,” Two Bull said. “I’m not fearful; I’m prepared. Here you don’t just run from fire or abandon your house.”

Also ordered to leave were about 600 people in and around Ashland, a small town just outside the reservation. Local, state, and federal firefighters were joined by ranchers using their heavy equipment to carve out fire lines around houses.

Cooler weather and less wind were in the weather forecast for southeastern Montana Thursday, the National Weather Service said. That could give firefighters brief relief before a ridge of high pressure moves into the area and pumps temperatures into the 90s over the weekend.

Extreme drought conditions have left trees, grass, and brush bone-dry throughout many Western states, leaving them ripe for ignition. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Montana alone had 25 large wildfires burning.

At the same time, California and some other states were facing flows of monsoonal moisture that were too high to bring real rain but could create thunderstorms that brought new fire risks of dry lightning and erratic winds.

In Northern California, several wildfires and more threatened three national forests to close down the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, a 780-square mile (2,000-square kilometer) area of granite peaks, lakes, and trails into November.

“Tracking hikers in unsafe areas pulls much-needed aircraft away from firefighting efforts and adds risk and exposure to first responders. Additionally, forest managers hope to limit the possibility of human-caused fires with this temporary full closure,” Shasta-Trinity National Forest officials said in a statement.

Scientists have said climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. The more than 100 wildfires in the American West come as parts of Europe are burning.

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