HAMILTON - Sparked by lightning, the Downing Mountain fire exploded on Hamilton's doorstep Friday, forcing the evacuation of 70 homes as firefighters dropped water and retardant and dug thick dozer lines.
By nightfall, 412 acres had burned in the forest just west of town and a Type II incident management team had arrived to coordinate the attack.
The flames took off in a hurry after a Thursday night lightning strike, and shortly after midnight Ravalli County sheriff's deputies and Hamilton police officers were knocking on doors, delivering the order to evacuate.
Bob Weidenkeller was with his wife watching son Dustin scrimmage with the Hamilton Broncs football team about 8 p.m. when the strike hit Downing Mountain, due west of the field.
"A huge flame went up immediately," Bob said. "It must have struck a dead tree, because we saw the flames just soar up right away."
The Weidenkellers live on Bearclaw Trail near the base of Downing Mountain. With the rest of the scrimmage canceled, they drove back home and started playing cards.
"It was just kind of smoldering," Dustin said. "There was a big orange glow, but it wasn't doing much."
The family was so engaged in the card game they didn't realize the fire had taken off. Then a friend sent a text message to their son: Are you watching the fire?
"We went out and it was probably a half-mile from the house," Bob said.
At around 10:30 p.m., the Hamilton Fire Department told everyone in the neighborhood to get ready to leave. The Weidenkellers evacuated at 1:30 a.m.
"There was a line of cars going down the mountain," Bob said.
The first closures and mandatory evacuations included the Blodgett Canyon and Canyon Creek areas - and residents along Wyant Lane, Blodgett Camp Road, Canyon Creek Road, Grub Stake Road and Owings Creek Road.
As the fire expanded its perimeter on Friday, another 100 households were put on Stage 1 evacuation warning, and told to prepare to leave.
Firefighters scrambled to protect 50 homes considered at greatest risk, burning out safety zones around two houses within the fire's perimeter.
The fire is burning in steep terrain, fueled by dead or downed trees and dry grass. Early on, fire bosses warned that firefighter safety would be priority one.
On Friday, the greatest burden fell on local crews from the Bitterroot National Forest and rural fire departments from throughout the valley.
"We can only work as fast as our resources get here," said Rick Moreno, who was the first incident commander assigned to Downing Mountain. "That's what we're working against now. It was a big day (for fire starts) across Montana yesterday."
Moreno said despite the prevailing west winds, the fire mostly burned westward and up toward the ridgetops on Friday, though in places it was creeping downhill along the ground.
The combination of hand crews, bulldozers and a fleet of local rural fire district engines were holding the line in protecting the homes immediately in jeopardy, Moreno said. The intent, he said, was to have a defensible line ready by evening, when downslope winds would likely push the fire to the east.
An aggressive aerial attack also helped to slow the fire's advance. By day's end, 38,000 gallons of retardant had been dropped to slow the fire's spread; helicopters delivered water from the Bitterroot River to hot spots in rapid intervals.
One objective was to keep the fire from burning across Downing's southern aspect, where it might jeopardize the Grubstake Restaurant and several radio and cell towers located high on the mountainside, Moreno said.
Overnight, engine crews planned to evaluate the structure protection within the evacuation and pre-evacuation areas. More evacuations could be requested, said Joni Lubke, a public information officer for the Bitterroot forest.
Combined with a favorable weather forecast, Moreno said he hoped the arrival of fresh crews Saturday would give fire bosses more options.
In addition to cooler temperatures, forecasters are calling for rain as the weekend progresses.
"That's been the good news all along," said Tod McKay, another Bitterroot forest spokesman. "If we can hold on to it for the next couple of days, then the weather is just going to keep getting better."
Throughout the day, evacuees headed to the homes of family and friends, realizing theirs would not be a quick return.
Those who didn't have a place to go were welcomed by the Red Cross, which initially set up at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, then moved closer to the fire at the West View Center.
Near the fairgrounds horse stalls Friday afternoon, Allen and Louise Schmidt watched the fire through binoculars from the bed of their pickup truck.
The Schmidts were evacuated from their home on Bearclaw Trail at about 1 a.m.
"I guess it was necessary because the wind was blowing so hard. We watched it come over the hill and right down toward the house," said Allen.
The Schmidts already had their most valuable possessions packed and ready to go.
"We got our pictures and animals, so we're good to go," said Louise. "Everything else can be replaced."
The Schmidts pitched a tent at a nearby RV campground at about 2:30 a.m., though they only got about three hours of sleep.
Later Friday morning, the couple was able to return home and trailer up their two horses, Dakota and Chance.
With their horses safely bedded down at the fairgrounds and their four dogs and cat in tow, they sat anxiously yet optimistic.
"As long as the wind doesn't change and blow it down the hill, it should be OK," Allen said.
At the Grubstake Restaurant, owner Richerd Kingdon said he and a couple others stayed on the mountain until nearly 3 a.m.
Nervously working under the glow of flames only a mile distant, the group packed up critical items and finally beat a retreat.
By noon on Friday, Kingdon was trying to convince Ravalli County sheriff's deputies to allow him back up the mountain so he could open the gate on an alternate access road. The additional route would likely benefit fire crews if they tried to establish an upper perimeter of fire line.
"This is pretty nerve-wracking," Kingdon told the deputies. "This could be a life or death thing. Any firefighter will think they have to come down this road."
Others in the neighborhood declined to leave altogether.
Gaylord and Sharon Lasher said they were happy to sign a waiver so they could wait the situation out.
"We're taking responsibility," Gaylord Lasher said, adding that he and his wife could flee the area in a moment's notice if conditions changed.
Lasher said he was confident that firefighters, aided by better weather, would keep the fire from running into the homes in Downing's shadow.
"We feel relatively good," he said. "They're doing a good job on the fire line from what we see here."
As of Friday evening, no homes had been lost.