CANYON CREEK - Authorities ordered more than two dozen homes evacuated Thursday when a prescribed burn near the Continental Divide turned into an out-of-control wildfire, but a half-dozen residents defied the order and stayed to protect their houses.
Temperatures in the 90s and gusting winds caused the Davis Gulch fire to grow from 200 acres to between 1,500 and 2,000 acres in just a few hours, said incident commander Greg Archie of the Montana Department of Natural Resources. More than 100 firefighters were trying to form an anchor behind the blaze and protect the homes, but there was very little they could do to contain the fire.
"The power of the fire is overcoming the power of the people. We have to change that soon," Archie said.
Residents in six of the 25 homes along the dirt and gravel road leading to Stemple Pass along the Continental Divide refused to leave their homes, said Canyon Creek Fire Chief Jason Grossman. The buildings were not in immediate danger of burning and firefighters were there to watch over the homes, he said.
"We can't force them (to leave). They know the danger," Grossman said.
Authorities were turning back other residents who had been at work 40 miles away in Helena and wanted to retrieve pets, medicine and valuables from their homes and vacation cabins.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said plans were being made to evacuate more homes if the fire spreads down the hillside within two miles of Montana Highway 279, where many more homes are located.
The Red Cross set up a shelter for evacuees a few miles down the highway at the Canyon Creek School. There, families waited for news of the fire's progress and questioned Dutton as to whether they could get a police escort back to their homes.
Among the evacuees at the shelter was the Medvec family, who live five miles off the highway toward Stemple Pass. Stacia, 17, and Kyra, 12, were at home cleaning the house for visitors while their parents were at work.
Stacia said she looked outside after 2 p.m. and saw flames on the ridge just above the house. Everything was brown with smoke. She called her parents and her neighbors.
"My mom said if I didn't feel safe, I could leave. So we grabbed the dog and two out of three cats and started leaving, and then I saw the fireman at my neighbor's house," Stacia said. "He came by and said it was out of control and we could either pack up and wait for them to evacuate us or just leave. So we just left.
"We were both crying. It was terrifying," she added.
The children met their parents at the highway's mile marker 18, where they knew they had cell phone reception. Her father, Gary, said they wanted to return to find their third cat, collect their medicine and a change of clothes.
The prescribed burn was started Wednesday to reduce fuel loads. Trees in the area have been killed by mountain pine beetles and spruce budworm.
The National Weather Service had issued a fire weather watch on Tuesday afternoon and upgraded it to a red flag warning on Wednesday afternoon due to a forecast calling for high temperatures, high winds and low humidity.
Residents questioned the wisdom of starting a fire in such conditions.
"This controlled burn, we're trying to figure out why they did it," said Earl O'Leary, an East Helena resident who was turned back when he tried to reach his cabin near Stemple Pass. "It just doesn't make sense why you would try that this time of year."
Helena National Forest spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell said U.S. Forest Service's burn plans are very specific and "they were within those specific prescriptions for this plan yesterday" when the fire was set.
Dutton said when forest officials called with their plans, there were none of the red-flag warnings.
"We knew it was going to be hot, but there was no forecast for wind. That was part of the decision-making process," he said.
Gary Medvec said he didn't think a controlled burn should have even been attempted in August.
"We can't light a match. We can't even burn in our backyard for s'mores," he said. "It wasn't worth even trying. We hear the weather every day, I don't know why they would start it when it's supposed to be 96 degrees."