Montana wildfires burn homes, cause injuries

Firefighters struggled Thursday to gain control of major Montana wildfires that burned houses and caused injuries, even as crews rushed to tamp down new blazes before the flames spread.

The toll from the latest spate of fires remained uncertain. But at least three evacuation orders were in place and well over 150 homes were threatened by blazes that in some cases burned unchecked.

One new fire was reported south of Ashland, and two others erupted in Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman. Authorities moved quickly to squelch them and said one of the Gallatin Canyon fires was extinguished by late afternoon.

High temperatures and erratic winds made the fight more difficult. And with nine large fires burning in Montana, officials said there was increasing competition for adequate equipment and personnel.

"We are making do with what we can get," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Karen Tuscano.

Tuscano was responding to a new wildfire in Paradise Valley near Yellowstone National Park. The blaze known as the Pine Creek Fire ignited Wednesday and resulted in minor injuries to firefighters and members of the public, the Park County sheriff's office said.

Residents caught unaware were forced to flee the village of Pine Creek without packing any bags, said Park County Commissioner Marty Malone. He said about 200 people live in the area and that some tried to fight the fire themselves, including a man who turned a hose on the flames until the power to an electric water pump was cut off by the blaze and the water stopped running.

At least five houses and several buildings were confirmed burned as the flames advanced to threaten houses in the Deep Creek area, Tuscano said.

The fire had grown to an estimated 8 square miles after starting on private land near the Yellowstone River. The cause was under investigation.

South of Butte, a resident who failed to heed an evacuation order was taken away by ambulance after suffering second-degree burns to his hands and arms, said Forest Service spokeswoman Mariah Leuschen.

That blaze, the 19 Mile Fire, has burned more than 6 square miles and at least nine structures, including two houses. Officials warned the toll will likely rise.

Residents briefly were allowed back in with escorts Thursday to check on the condition of their property. Officials planned additional escorts Friday morning when fire activity is at a minimum.

South of Bozeman, officials said six houses and 20 commercial buildings and outbuildings were threatened by the Millie Fire, which exploded from less than 1 square mile to more than 15 square miles from Wednesday to Thursday. The fire was uncontained Thursday.

Smoke and haze from the wildfires continued to degrade the air quality in southwestern Montana. The air in Hamilton and Bozeman was listed as unhealthy by state officials.

To the east, an estimated 20 residences and summer houses remained evacuated due to a fire burning on the northeast front of the Beartooth Mountains near Roscoe. But firefighters had a crude line around the fire by late Thursday and crews were being re-assigned to the Pine Creek Fire, said spokesman Jeff Gildehaus.

Wildfires were burning in at least six other western states. In California, the Goff Fire continued to threaten about 80 homes in northwest Siskiyou County, while the North Pass Fire in Mendocino County threatened 64 more residences. Both fires are about one-fourth contained.

And a blaze in Wyoming's Teton Wilderness has scorched 19 square miles after making a big run Wednesday. The fire spread away from an area with summer cabins, though, and fire officials said it may burn itself out soon.


Matt Volz contributed from Helena.