By AP News, 6-27-12
BILLINGS – Wildfires raced through southeastern Montana on Wednesday, torching more than 125,000 acres, burning dozens of homes and increasing the need for fire equipment and personnel already responding to four fires in the western part of the state.
The Ash Creek fire near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation has burned 18 homes and grown to 110,000 acres in less than 24 hours.
"That's one of the most dangerous fires in the history of Montana," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said after a briefing in Billings.
Eleven homes have burned on the reservation, seven more were on private land and a total of 319 structures were within the 156-square-mile perimeter.
The fire began Tuesday 10 miles east of Lame Deer on and has led to the evacuation of an unknown number of residents in Ashland and St. Labre. More than 100 firefighters were responding to the fire burning on state and private land off the reservation.
To the northwest, dozens of homes have burned in the Dahl fire, which had spread to 18,500 acres since igniting Tuesday. Officials revised their estimate Wednesday afternoon from 18,700 acres after mapping it from the air, said state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokeswoman Paul Short.
Fire officials said they expect the fire south of Roundup will grow on Wednesday and their priority was to evacuate residents and protect homes.
"The focus is on getting people out of the way," state forester Bob Harrington said.
Musselshell County Attorney Kent Sipe told The Billings Gazette that at least 60 homes had burned. Short said it's safe to say dozens of homes burned.
"I lost every damn thing I own except my tractor," said Robert Brengman, 67, up Highway 87 from a roadblock. He was able to get into his property briefly Wednesday morning to survey the damage to the house he and his wife had started building on 80 acres.
The fire swept through the area, burning the wood they'd purchased, their tools and most of their possessions, which were being stored in their shop.
The couple had been living in a camper while the house was being built and spent the night in the camper just south of the fire.
Musselshell County Disaster and Emergency Services Director Jeff Gates said the fire went through his property Tuesday. His house and barn were saved, but all the trees and grass were gone.
"Everybody's breathing," he said. "That's the good thing."
The Dahl fire, pushed by 55 mph gusts, made a 12-mile run Tuesday and threatened the Signal Peak Mine, which also was evacuated.
County Commissioner Larry Leske said the fire was burning in a rural subdivision that has about 300 homes and firefighters were concentrating on protecting those residences Wednesday morning. Officials have ordered a 20,000-gallon air tanker and orders for additional resources are pending.
The cause of the fire is unknown. The National Weather Service reported lighting and thunderstorm activity in the area north of Billings.
Short said about 600 people from 130 residences remained evacuated Wednesday morning.
Schweitzer extended an emergency declaration on Wednesday to include the reservation and Musselsshell, Rosebud, Custer, Treasure, Yellowstone and Big Horn counties.
The order, which allows the governor to mobilize state resources and the Montana National Guard, extends the emergency Schweitzer declared Tuesday in Lewis and Clark, Broadwater, Jefferson and Madison counties.
North of Helena, some residents were expected to be allowed back to their homes after the Corral fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents on Monday and Tuesday.
Authorities were keeping residents away from homes still threatened on the southeastern flank of the 1,850-acre fire.
To the southeast, Gallatin County authorities said two structures were lost and evacuations have been ordered in the Bear Trap fire near the Madison River.
That fire, which authorities said was human caused, has grown to more than 3,000 acres and is uncontained.
The Pony fire southeast of Whitehall doubled in size Tuesday, spreading to 6,400 acres, authorities said. Two structures have burned and about 80 homes were threatened, officials said.
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