Rural volunteer fire departments responded to a first alarm wildland fire near a subdivision off U.S. Highway 12 east of Helena Thursday afternoon, which prompted the evacuation of some homes.
The blaze, known as the Matt Staff Road fire, was 1,900 acres in size as of 8:30 p.m., according to a posting on the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office Facebook page. It was threatening structures in the area of Spokane Creek and Matt Staff roads. The cause of the fire was under investigation, said John Huston, program manager of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Forestry Division.
There were no structures lost or no injuries reported as of 8 p.m., he said.
The sheriff's office posted at 9:30 p.m. that the "Fire is laying down for the night. Fire personnel are still on scene and active."
They thanked the public for their patience and thanked all the responders from other agencies and neighboring counties.
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According to dispatch, multiple starts flared up in a wheat field east of Spokane Creek Road and north of Matt Staff Road on Thursday afternoon.
The fire originally burned grassland, then crested the ridge and began to burn brush, Huston said. He said a U.S. Forest Service Type III fire team would be taking command of the fire early Friday. The fire is burning on land under the protection of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The DNRC, the U.S. Forest Service and Lewis and Clark and Broadwater counties had a coordinated effort to fight the fire until then.
The fire was burning to the north east, but once it crossed the ridge it moved a little to the south, Huston said. The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest said Wednesday that the forest was now in very high fire danger status due to ongoing hot and dry conditions.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff and Fire Warden Leo Dutton said Thursday at 4 p.m. that Spokane Creek and Matt Staff roads were closed to traffic. It was announced at 6 p.m. that Spokane Creek Road was reopened.
Dutton said homes along Matt Staff Road that are threatened have been evacuated, and that all agencies are trying to coordinate an evacuation plan "for where it's heading."
Dutton said deputies are also evacuating West Shore Drive. It was also reported that residents on Loon Road and Candlelight Road were evacuated as well.
"It looks like it's going to burn into Broadwater County," Dutton said.
He said 24 homes were evacuated and authorities had stopped at many more homes, but there was no one there.
"There were some very close calls for residents," Dutton said.
One nearby resident posted on Facebook that she was worried.
"I live on West Shore, getting very nervous," Joni DeBoer wrote.
Officials posted at 7 p.m. that south of West Shore Drive and Lewis and Clark Day Use area were closed. Residents have been evacuated and no one is allowed in.
Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department was initially paged, and responding firefighters called for mutual aid at 2:51 p.m.
A Tri-Lakes Fire volunteer evacuated three children out of one house.
DNRC sent two engines. DNRC also launched air support by 3:15 p.m., including three helicopters and two airplanes.
U.S. Forest Service and numerous volunteer rural fire departments also responded.
The Broadwater County Sheriff's Office advised social media followers Thursday afternoon to avoid the area as "there is a large number of first responders in the area of Spokane Creek subdivision for a fast moving fire."
Huston said earlier the fire was burning near the Broadwater County line. He said crews on the ground are working to flank the fire, digging lines and doing structure triage for structures in its path.
An evacuee respite center was set up by the Montana Red Cross and will be open at 6 p.m. at the First Assembly of God Church, First Kids Building, at 2210 Dodge Ave., Helena.
Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department has requested people in the area call 406-431-3600 to report any new fire sightings throughout the night.
The phone number for the public information hotline is 406-447-8305
Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-231-9021.