Although all evacuation orders remain in place for the North Hills fire near Helena, evacuees flooded back to their homes Tuesday morning to gather valuables, documents and living essentials.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton announced at a community meeting Monday night that deputies would be escorting evacuees to their homes from 7 a.m. to noon daily until the evacuations are lifted, beginning Tuesday. Ravalli and Gallatin counties have traveled to assist with escorts.
"People were here at 6:30 (a.m.) lining up," Cpl. Greg Holmlund of the sheriff's office said.
Holmlund said the residents of about 70 homes came to retrieve a variety of items including guns, safes, jewelry, tools, pictures, bedding and clothes.
"Some of these have five or six people per residence," he said.
For the most part, Holmlund said, the prevailing mood of those residents was "friendly as hell."
"There are a few people who are upset," he said, but overall, people were responding as well as they could to the situation.
To receive an escort, residents should wait at the public parking areas on either side of the Causeway between Lake Helena and Hauser Reservoir between 7 a.m. and noon. Deputies will be coming in and out to meet residents there and take them behind the roadblocks.
Tri-Lakes Fire Chief Bob Drake implored those seeking escorts to use them only for legitimate reasons. Some residents were evacuated when they were not home and left critical items such as medication that needs to be retrieved.
The evacuation area includes the White Sandy and Black Sandy campgrounds as well as residential homes on Noble Lane, Snowdrift Road, Big Build Drive, West Haven Road, Mountain Meadow Road, Timber Trail, Countryside Road, Black Sandy Loop, Churchill Lane, and the American Bar and Eldorado Heights Subdivision. Livestock have been removed from the area.
Despite the evacuation orders, only about half of the residents of the nearly 500 affected homes chose to leave, Dutton said, and he thanked those who heeded the warnings. Both fire and law enforcement officials say they hope to allow residents to return home as soon as it is safe, which Dutton said could happen as early as Wednesday.
Officials will hold another North Hills fire meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Helena Valley Community Center, 3552 Tizer Road.
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The fire, which started Friday on BLM property in the North Hills, had burned 4,668 acres and was listed as 15% contained as of Tuesday evening.
"There's a lot of hot spots still within the perimeter," said Lewis and Clark County spokesperson Jeni Garcin, who is helping with communications for the fire.
The wind can cause those hot spots to flare up again, she said, and "they don't want to let people back in and have something happen."
Officials believe the fire to be human-caused but have not released further details.
Although the fire has not burned any structures, the charred ground around homes and shops shows that it came close. Most of the North Hills fire is burning in a "mosaic" form, which means there are completely untouched sections of grass and trees right next to the charred remnants of duff and pines stripped of their needles.
Earlier this weekend when the fire was threatening to cross Snowdrift Road, water trucks were driving up and down the dirt boulevard and spraying their payloads at the forest to keep the flames back, Holmlund said.
On Black Sandy Loop, the green and wheat colors of the forest were creased by broad and rusty stripes of fire retardant. Holmlund said the massive DC-10 had flown up through the canyon the day before, so low that it almost seemed like it would disappear into the ravine before dropping its payload and bouncing back up.
Jeremiah Miller, the division supervisor for the North Hills fire, and Liaison Officer Mark Harvey toured the fire area before Tuesday's afternoon storm kicked up.
The fire has sent firefighters, hotshot crews, bulldozers and air support all around the North Hills. The fire is estimated to have cost agencies some $1.7 million as of Monday evening. Crews were digging line around homes, following the retardant and roads to work around the fire as best they could.
"More people are moving into the wildland urban interface," Miller said, standing in front of a burned field just a few feet away from an evacuated house.
Fire information is available by calling 458-3508 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An emergency shelter is available at Helena First Assembly of God Church, 2210 Dodge Ave.
Tom Kuglin and Jesse Chaney of the Independent Record contributed to this story.