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'It was extreme fire behavior': Evacuations lifted for residents on Birdseye fire near Helena
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'It was extreme fire behavior': Evacuations lifted for residents on Birdseye fire near Helena

A fast-moving wildfire burned about 800 acres northwest of Helena Wednesday afternoon and caused the evacuation of part of the West Helena Valley.

The Birdseye fire sparked near where Birdseye Road crosses the railroad tracks north of Fort Harrison at about 4 p.m. Wednesday. The blaze quickly grew under red flag conditions including high winds and low relative humidity, sending a large column of smoke over Helena.

“It was extreme fire behavior,” said Chris Spliethof, incident commander with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “In some areas we were getting 10- to 20-foot flames.”

The fire threatened several houses and damaged fences in the area. It burned mostly in grass and sagebrush but did hit a creek bottom with willows as well.

“It burned right up to a few houses – a half dozen structures had fires close to them but they were able to get engines in there in the nick of time,” Spliethof said.

One historic building in the area was damaged, although authorities did not immediately have the name of the building.

Firefighters were mopping up the fire as of 7:30 p.m. but Spliethof expected crews to remain on scene the next three or four days. 

About 100 rural volunteer firefighters responded to the fire, as well as the DNRC, city of Helena and helicopters from the Montana Army National Guard, said Paige Cohen with DNRC. The fire was being managed under a unified command among the departments and the state.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Wednesday evening.

The fire triggered evacuations north of Custer Avenue, south of Lincoln Road and west of Green Meadow Drive. Road closures included Green Meadow, Franklin Mine, Head Lane and Alfalfa Road. 

“We’re trying to press people to stay out of the area and if people do feel unsafe at all, even if they have not been evacuated they should evacuate themselves if they feel unsafe at all,” Cohen said.

Evacuations for residents was lifted at 8:30 p.m. Authorities asked that others remain away from the area.

The Red Cross has established an evacuation point at the Helena First Church between National and Elm Streets for residents affected by the fire. The public may also call 447-1605 to get a recorded update from the Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator. Large animals may be brought to the fairgrounds. 
 

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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“I’m glad we didn’t do this 30 years ago because there were a lot of things different back in those days. The regulations were not as stringent, people’s mindsets were different and I think we’re doing a far far better job of it now than we probably could’ve conceived of 30 years ago and I’m very glad for that.”

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