The Roaring Lion fire has claimed one life and 14 homes southwest of Hamilton.
Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman said conditions had improved enough Monday night to let people back into the burned area.
Bruce Lee Robinson, 64, died of cardiac arrest during the mandatory evacuation Sunday from the fast-moving fire.
The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office confirmed late Monday that at least 14 homes have been destroyed. Specific addresses were being withheld until the owners could be notified.
Without the efforts of firefighters throughout the night, Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn said there would have been more homes burned.
“They were out there all night long,” Mohn said. “There were a lot of spot fires. They definitely saved some homes by putting out fires burning around them.”
But the worst may be yet to come. Wind gusts topping 50 miles per hour are expected on mountain tops tonight.
Bitterroot National Forest Fire Management Officer Mark Wilson said the fire was initially reported at about 2:20 p.m. Sunday.
“It was visible to pretty much everyone,” Wilson said.
A helicopter was immediately launched from the Hamilton airport and firefighters from the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department and a Forest Service engine from Darby were dispatched.
“When our helicopter arrived on the scene 10 minutes later, the pilot reported the fire at about an acre in size and growing,” Wilson said. “It went from a spot to an acre in a matter of minutes.”
Five minutes later, the helicopter pilot dropped the first bucket of water on the blaze.
“It had already doubled in size,” Wilson said. “For every bucket he dropped, he said the fire doubled in size initially. About this time, the volunteers and our engine crew realized this was not something that they could put out. They started focusing their efforts on evacuating people.”
The fire appears to have started about mile up the trail near the bottom of the canyon.
“Within the first 30 minutes, it had spotted on both sides of the canyon and started moving on both sides,” Wilson said. “Wind gusts were in the 20 to 30 mph range. It was burning in really heavy fuels.”
Firefighters on the scene reported seeing embers falling all around them.
“I don’t think it took a lot of discussion about the need to begin evacuating people,” Wilson said. “They knew they needed to get out of there themselves.”
The first responders included contingents from Hamilton Volunteer Fire, BitterrootForest and the Ravalli County Sheriff’s office.
“On the positive side, everyone was there and they responded together,” Wilson said. “All the right folks were there to make it happen really quickly.”
The next few days will be extremely challenging for firefighters.
“The weather forecast is calling for strong winds and low relative humidity as a dry cold front moves through,” Wilson said. “We’re getting to the upper end of the high fire danger at this point. We have had some extremely low relative humidity levels in the range of 9 percent. The heavy fuels are really dry.”
Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay said firefighters built a containment line along the eastern edge of the fire Sunday night and Monday morning.
“We have about 150 boots on the ground at this point,” he said Monday morning. “I think the cool temperatures last night really helped them. … It sounds like they did some really great work.”
The fire has burned an estimated 3,500 acres.
The management of the fire will transition over to a Type 1 team, used for the most serious fires.
“There will be a big effort today to bring the new team up to speed,” McKay said. “The biggest issue that they will face early on is a weather forecast that includes a fire weather warning. There are 35 to 40 mph winds predicted Tuesday.” (See related story.)
A blanket of smoke covered the fire Monday morning, which made it difficult to launch any air resources. Wilson said two helicopters did manage to make water drops Monday afternoon.
The fire burned through a portion of the national forest lands that were set to be thinned in the next year as part of the BitterrootForest’s Westside Project.
“This whole area between Roaring Lion and Lost Horse hasn’t burned in a long, long time,” McKay said. “That heavy fuel load resulted in the inferno that we saw yesterday. Once it started, there was no stopping it.”
“Everything is pretty calm right now,” he said at about 9:30 a.m. “Thankfully, there is no wind. The fire crews that are here look pretty tired.”
There haven’t been any changes to evacuation orders from Sunday.
The Red Cross has set up two shelters for evacuees in Hamilton at The River Church at 354 Cooper Lane.