CANYON CREEK, Mont. – Authorities in western Montana roused people from their beds early Friday to flee an approaching wildfire, as thunderstorms sparked dozens more in blazes across the West in Idaho and Nevada.
Cooler temperatures and calmer winds helped firefighters control wildfires that flared up a day earlier across eastern Washington.
Montana authorities began knocking on doors at 3 a.m. Friday, warning residents that a fire in the Bitterroot National Forest was threatening their homes.
The Downing Mountain fire was reported Thursday evening and grew to 415 acres by Friday afternoon, said forest spokesman Tod McKay. But the blaze was moving west, away from houses and away from the town of Hamilton, which is just three miles away, he said.
About 70 homes in the Blodgett and Canyon Creek areas were evacuated and fire officials said residents of another 100 homes were warned they may have to leave.
"This is not an easy process for residents to be told at 3 a.m. that they must leave their homes which are currently threatened. Thankfully everyone has been very understanding and cooperative," said Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman.
A shelter for displaced families was set up at the county fairgrounds, which also has taken in horses from the fire zone, McKay said.
Meanwhile, overnight showers slowed the Davis Gulch wildfire on Helena National Forest near Stemple Pass enough to allow homeowners to return to their properties on Friday
But the people who left their homes Thursday were told to be ready to leave again at a moment's notice, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton told a crowd of more than 100 gathered at the Canyon Creek School.
The fire has burned approximately 2,000 acres near the Continental Divide about 40 miles northwest of Helena, but no structures have been damaged, Dutton said. The area that was evacuated has about 10 homes with year-round residents and another 50 vacation cabins.
The Davis Gulch fire remains the No. 1 priority in Montana and No. 5 in the nation, Dutton said.
The wildfire began when the U.S. Forest Service lost control of a prescribed burn of 100 acres on Wednesday and it spread quickly.
Residents at a public meeting Thursday night angrily demanded to know why the Forest Service would order a prescribed burn under such conditions, eliciting an apology from the district ranger.
Forest Service officials said they will conduct an internal review to investigate the fire, though they said the prescribed burn began within the specific parameters of the Forest Service's burn plan.
In Idaho, thunderstorms sparked dozens of new wildfires on state and federal lands, adding to several significant blazes that have forced evacuations and threatened homes.
The 60 lightning-caused blazes that erupted Thursday afternoon in southern Idaho and the Boise, Idaho, area come after an estimated 250 to 300 residents were evacuated from the Tamarack Resort area Thursday. The Hurd Fire there more than doubled in size to nearly 1,300 acres, or two square miles, Friday, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Laura Pramuk.
The Long Butte Fire that has burned nearly 480 square miles in the southern Idaho desert was 70 percent contained.
In northeastern Washington, a fire near the town of Arden, Wash., grew to about 1,000 acres, the state fire marshal's office said Friday. About 145 homes were threatened by the fire, including 65 in which the residents were ordered to evacuate.
The fire burned two homes and seven outbuildings Thursday, said Albert Kassel of the state Department of Natural Resources. It started when a tree fell on a power line.
A wildfire in rugged country near the Columbia River town of Lyle, Wash., grew to 1,200 acres by Friday morning, Kassel said. Residents of 40 homes faced mandatory evacuations, and people in another 50 homes were told to prepare to evacuate, he said. One outbuilding had burned.
The Fish Hatchery fire near Republic, Wash., in Ferry County grew to 650 acres, but about two-thirds had been surrounded by a fire line, Kassel said. Firefighters were wary about high winds predicted in that area, he said. No structures have burned.
Lightning also sparked two small wildfires Thursday in the Mount Charleston recreation area just outside Las Vegas. No structures were threatened and there were no evacuations.