BILLINGS, Mont. – Dozens of ranch properties in California were put on alert Monday as the third-largest wildfire in modern state history raged through Los Padres National Forest backcountry. The blaze had blackened 337 square miles since starting July 4 and was 77 percent contained.
The firefighters, more than 3,000 strong, faced rugged terrain, temperatures in the 90s and extremely low humidity in an area that hadn't burned in 75 to 100 years, fire bosses said.
"The fuel conditions are extreme. The chaparral we're working with is practically explosive," said incident commander Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service.
As a precaution, residents of 30 to 40 ranches in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties were advised to move large animals out of the area and be prepared to get out themselves. A 45-mile stretch of the highway was closed.
A new blaze shut down a stretch of Highway 1, a scenic coastal route, as it was blown toward wineries and ranches, said Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Michael Burke. Some residents were warned to be ready to flee.
In Billings, Mont., gusty winds stirred up new trouble for firefighters working to corral a wildfire burning east of Billings on Monday, a day after crews chased flames from the doorsteps of dozens of homes.
The fire has burned an estimated 804 acres, or a little more than 1 square mile, and led to evacuation orders for about 300 homes in a subdivision. Two homes have been destroyed since the blaze erupted Sunday afternoon, but no injuries have been reported.
"Every one of these houses, the fire burned up to the doors of every one of them," said John Staley, assistant fire chief in Billings. "We should have had nine or 10 of these houses gone. ... We chased it from house to house."
Two 20-person hand crews arrived Monday, giving local firefighters a break. They dragged hoses through charred stands of timber, dousing hot spots while helicopters ferried buckets of water to areas inaccessible by foot.
"If we don't knock this down right now, it is going to keep flaring up," said William Rash, fire chief in unincorporated Lockwood, site of the subdivision. "If we don't mop it up right and the wind rekindles it, we're back where we started."
The fire also destroyed several other structures, but authorities credited crews with saving about 50 homes that otherwise would have burned.
"There's some lucky people up here," said Lockwood resident Pete Gannon, whose unburned house was left surrounded by charred trees and the smoldering remains of two of his barns.
As Gannon spoke, he jabbed with a shovel at some embers from one of the barns. "I'll take losing that any day," he said.
Difficult terrain and wind gusts as high as 38 mph made the fire hard to control. Some homeowners had cleared brush and trees from around their houses, although others left trees brushing right up against the sides.
In western Montana, wind and low humidity continued to test fire lines at several blazes after more evacuations over the weekend.
Near Seeley Lake, wind pushed a 54-square-mile fire toward Placid Lake, leading to an evacuation order for the recreation area Sunday afternoon, said Paul Slenkamp, a fire information officer. He did not know how many homes were affected.
Crews were pulled off the lightning-sparked blaze after it jumped control lines. It was 28 percent contained, officials said. The fire has destroyed one home and damaged several others.
Southeast of Missoula, 213 cabins and homes in the path of an 84-square-mile group of fires burning in three national forests remained under evacuation orders.
Northwest of Missoula, as many as 100 homes were still under evacuation orders because of an 18-square-mile fire that was 30 percent contained. That blaze has destroyed three mobile homes.
Lower temperatures and higher humidity were forecast early this week.
Elsewhere, a 17-square-mile fire in Idaho was within a mile of about 100 summer cottages and million-dollar homes Monday near the resort town of Ketchum. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter ordered residents of the homes to evacuate Sunday, said fire spokesman Dave Olson.
Otter declared a statewide disaster emergency Monday as several large wildfires flared, making it easier for counties to get help from the National Guard or other state resources in battling the blazes.
In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, strong winds awakened part of a stubborn 28-square-mile fire, forcing fewer than 25 residents out of their homes, officials said. A lightning strike is suspected of starting the fire Aug. 2.