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BILLINGS -- By midday Saturday, more than 17 different agencies had contained about 40 percent of the Fritz fire, south of Billings which began Friday afternoon.

The fire had grown to 1,395 acres and had destroyed one residence and one garage, while threatening 18 other residences and an equal number of out buildings. Residents around the Duck Creek Area remained evacuated.

"Until we get everything mopped up around those structures, they'll remain threatened," said Brad Shoemaker, Yellowstone County's Disaster and Emergency Response coordinator. "But we're working on that at this point."

The difficulty now, he said, is fire has been doused on most of the flat, easy topography, and firefighters were now focusing on the harder-to-get-to coulees and other difficult terrain.

There were as many as 40 engines, three helicopters and one plane fighting the fire, Shoemaker said. That included firefighters from three counties, as well as federal, state and local entities.

The plane was a part of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the helicopters were from DNRC and Billings Flying Service in Billings. 

Rick Cortez III, fire chief of the Blue Creek Volunteer Fire Department, was the incident commander on the fire, he said.

Shoemaker said that given the hot, dry, windy weather conditions, the fire response has been successful, despite the losses.

Firefighters worked through the night. They conducted a burnout operation on the west side of the fire, along Duck Creek Road on Saturday morning, Shoemaker said. 

Residents of the homes are still under evacuation orders, he said. A Red Cross shelter was set up in Laurel on Friday night, but it remained empty as of Saturday morning.

The blaze was first reported about 5:30 p.m. Friday. It originally began in wheat fields south of Fritz Road in the area of Duck Creek Road and moved north of Fritz before it jumped the Yellowstone River some time around 8 p.m.

The cause is believed to be either a thunderstorm or a piece of machinery. The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office planned to conduct an investigation on Saturday afternoon. 

About 125 firefighters were on scene on Friday, with some leaving for rest at night, Shoemaker said. He estimated 75 to 100 of them were on duty by late Saturday morning.

More resources were expected by Saturday afternoon. Two hand crews were scheduled to come into Montana on Friday and "we're going to be picking up one of those this afternoon," he said. 

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Shoemaker said the private drone that was flying in the area of the fire Friday night and halted use of firefighting aircraft is no longer a problem.

"A little later in the evening, the Sheriff's Office caught it and took possession of it," he said.

But the presence of the drone forced all of the aircraft to land, and none were allowed to take to the air again until Saturday morning. A drone that tangles with a helicopter could cause the aircraft to crash in mere seconds.

"When we lose resources, it can affect our response to the fire," Shoemaker said.

Anyone caught operating drones in the area could face prosecution, he said.

There were no major injuries from the fire, Shoemaker said, but one person was treated on the scene by EMTs and a couple of livestock were treated for minor injuries.

Shoemaker said total containment was hard to predict. But it might come Sunday afternoon or evening, or possibly early Monday.

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