Clearer weather conditions on Saturday made more work for wildland fire crews northwest of Canyon Creek, where officials say the 900-acre Rattlesnake fire is now 40 percent contained.
Sunnier skies warmed patches of scorched earth kept cool under Friday's cloud cover, reigniting spot fires and extending mop up operations now expected to keep firefighters busy well past Labor Day weekend.
More than 200 fire personnel -- including smokejumpers and hotshots -- have so far been deployed to the lightning-caused blaze roughly 30 miles northwest of Helena, which started early Thursday evening at the Triple 8 Ranch and grew quickly under shifting wind conditions that pushed the fire through grass and timber along dry, steep-sided gulches.
Pinkish orange fire retardant and the white shadows of flash-burned trees lined one such gully on the fire’s eastern edge, where crews a day earlier hoped to halt the burn’s progress at a ranching road winding up a hillside.
Just yards away, fire personnel manning bulldozers cut a ditch around a sagging, metal-roofed cabin -- preserving the only structure yet threatened by the fire.
Elsewhere, handcrews used axes and shovels to suffocate still smoky patches of brush and cow manure.
Kurt Hansen, a division supervisor with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said quickly spotting and quashing those smolder spots could prove critical to wrapping up work on the fire.
“With the sunshine on it this morning, a lot of (spot fires) popped up,” Hansen said. “Just a couple hours of sunshine makes a huge difference.
“But it’s good in the sense that we’re able to find some stuff and do a better job doing the mop up. The flip side of that is because there was so much (spot fire activity) yesterday, we’re not sure we know where they’re all at yet.”
Supervisors nearly doubled the personnel assigned to the Rattlesnake fire overnight. State officials said that bump in manpower, coupled with rain forecast over the long weekend, could see crews on their way home by the end of the week.
Firefighters with a pair of state and federal agencies have joined their counterparts from Canyon Creek and Lewis and Clark County to battle the blaze. Their efforts are aided by four helicopters, three water tenders and more than a dozen fire engines.
Rattlesnake Gulch Road, Canyon Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Sieben Block Management Area all remained closed as of Saturday afternoon.