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A prescribed fire by the Helena National Forest exploded out of control early Thursday afternoon, swelling to an estimated 1,000 acres by 6 p.m. and threatening almost two dozen homes along Stemple Pass Road.

The Davis fire was started near Granite Butte by a Forest Service crew on Wednesday, when they believed that the current weather and outlook gave them a window of opportunity to do some burning that had been planned. It wasn't fully extinguished, according to Kathy Bushnell, a Helena National Forest spokeswoman.

"They expected to hold it today and let it go out," Bushnell said.

But strong winds blew in with a cold front, and the fire got away.

"It took off like a rocket ship," said Greg Archie, the incident commander for the Department of Natu-ral Resources and Conservation.

With embers sparking new flames anywhere from half a mile to a mile ahead of the blaze, it quickly moved from public lands onto the Grady Ranch.

From the Canyon Creek Fire Hall, Rick Grady stared in disbelief at the roiling smoke over his family ranch. As a member of the volunteer fire board and former DNRC firefighter, he was angry that the prescribed fire was started, noting that open burning was closed in Lewis and Clark County on Wednes-day and Thursday. The National Weather Service had also issued a "red flag" warning on Wednesday for Thursday, meaning that the combination of near-record warm temperatures, low humidity and gusty southwest winds would create dangerous fire weather conditions.

"I'm upset. They're burning my family ranch and my property. This is going to be a hardship for my brother and my dad," Grady said. "The fact is, they were burning yesterday knowing it was going to be a red flag day today."

He paused for a minute, and looked through a spotting scope to see the flames more clearly.

"Now it's on Black Mountain; it's doing the same thing as when a fire burned there back in the '30s. That's why we call it Black Mountain," Grady said. "With the winds coming from the southwest, it's got the potential to spot to the north side of Black Mountain and into Virginia Creek."

At one point, crews reported the fire had jumped across Stemple Pass Road to the north, but that hadn't been confirmed Thursday evening.

Evacuations were ordered along Stemple Pass Road, from its intersection with Lincoln Road west to the summit. About seven homes are inhabited year-round, according to residents Francis and Betty Clearman, and another dozen or so are vacation cottages.

As Francis set sprinklers on the roof of his house and garage, Betty started gathering important papers and medications. They were considering staying until it got a little heated, but Francis' brother Ted Clearman, who lives next door, said he was going to make sure they left with him.

Farther up the road, Robert and Barbara Zellmer also were packing up, and also were angry about the fire.

"I'm mad as hell," Barbara Zellmer said. "Whatever expenses we accumulate is going to be paid by the Forest Service."

"It was really poor judgment at the expense of everyone else," Robert Zellmer added. "What was the hurry? Why not wait for the snow to fly?

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"If I had been up there and done that, I'd be in a squad car, going down the hill to the jail."

The fire is in a fairly remote area, which is difficult to access, Archie said. Thursday night, it was tran-sitioning from subalpine fir and light timber - most of it dead - into country that was easier for crews to get into, but had thicker fuels.

They're only putting Forest Service firefighters at the back of the fire to keep them out of danger, while volunteer firefighters were posted at all the homes for structure protection. Helicopters were dropping buckets of water on the blaze, while planes dropped loads of retardant.

"A lot of it is inaccessible, and even where thee are roads, the timber is thick, making access extremely difficult and unsafe," Archie said.

He added that based on weather conditions, they expect the fire to keep burning at least until the weekend, when increasing clouds on Saturday will bring the chance of showers, and a cooler and wetter weather pattern could lead to widespread wetting rains on Sunday and Monday.

"How long this will go on is a concern, but the moisture will help us out a lot," Archie said.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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