Firefighters on the Benchmark fire west of Augusta were able to begin building a fire line with the aid of air support Wednesday and Thursday.

“They were able to go on direct attack yesterday and build line and that continued into the night,” Dave Cunningham, public affairs officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest, said Thursday. “They were able to continue to build line today.”

The fire remained at about 50 acres burning in dense timber Thursday, he said.

The lightning-caused fire ignited Tuesday about 22.5 miles west of Augusta, triggering evacuations in the Benchmark area. That includes about 10 Forest Service lease cabins and area campgrounds.

Other cabins, the Benchmark Wilderness Resort, a Forest Service rental cabin and an administrative site are also in the area.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said Wednesday that about 15 vehicles were at trailheads leading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The Forest Service has been busy contacting outfitters in the backcountry and wilderness rangers, Cunningham said. The majority of vehicles belonged to outfitters or clients, he said, adding that backcountry rangers were stopping and advising people.

Trails are closed throughout the upper section of the Benchmark area.

Adding an additional challenge is the approximately 50-acre Sheep Mountain fire burning about five miles west of Gibson Reservoir -- a likely alternative route if Benchmark cannot be accessed.

If people were actually caught in the backcountry wilderness, rangers are available to help them safely find a way out, Cunningham said.

An incident management team will take over command of the Benchmark and other areas fires Friday.

The Bob Marshall is a popular place for point-to-point trips, meaning starting at one trailhead and coming out at another. With closures announced in the Flathead National Forest and Great Bear and Bob Marshall wildernesses to the north, Cunningham urged backcountry travelers to contact the Forest Service prior to departure.

“From now forward, anyone planning a trip into the Bob Marshall should contact the appropriate ranger district to ensure the areas are still open, as that has been changing,” he said.

Augusta winds are expected to be fairly breezy leading up to a cold front moving into the area this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

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High temperatures are expected in the mid to upper 80s Friday and Saturday before a high of 70 on Sunday. The highest winds are expected Saturday night at 18 to 23 mph with gusts up to 31 mph.

The Helena National Forest responded to a 12-acre fire burning near Townsend in the Elkhorn Mountains Thursday.

The lightning-caused fire is burning on Bureau of Land Management land in Whipcracker Gulch approximately 4.5 miles west of Townsend. The land is under Forest Service fire protection, according to Kathy Bushnell, public affairs officer for the Helena National Forest.

The fire is burning in timber and no structures are threatened. Smoke was visible but mixed with other smoke at times.

The fire stayed moderately active on Thursday with some isolated trees burning, Bushnell said.

Twenty people, three helicopters and one tanker were assigned to the fire.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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