SEELEY LAKE - Work to restrain a wildfire near this resort town is showing results, but an end to the fire is not in sight and, unless nature delivers a surprisingly good rain, burning could continue into the fall, fire managers said Wednesday.
"We've got about a month and a half of this left," Scott Bates, safety officer for the Jocko Lakes fire, told fire crews at a Wednesday morning briefing.
"You guys have got to pace yourselves," he told firefighters, urging them to get plenty of rest.
Fire commander Glen McNitt said the area usually doesn't see substantial rainfall until mid-September, adding it was conceivable the fire could last until then.
"This country will burn, and it will burn fast and furious," he said.
The fire has burned about 15,000 acres, or more than 23 square miles, since it started Friday about 50 miles northeast of Missoula. It was 10 percent contained as of Tuesday night.
"We are prepared for the worst, and people should pray for the best," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who arrived Tuesday at the fire lines for a briefing. It was his second visit to the Jocko Lakes fire.
Schweitzer went on a helicopter ride Tuesday with a reporter and photographer. From the air, it initially looked like a series of small campfires lapping at trees, but then a big swath of blackened forest came into view, including the rubble of one home destroyed in the blaze.
Fire managers were pleased that lines to restrain the blaze held against winds of 20-22 mph Tuesday. On Wednesday they expected winds of about 20 mph and temperatures about 5 degrees cooler than the day before, with highs predicted in the 80s at upper elevations. Humidity was expected to be about 3 percent higher, but there was no rain in the forecast.
Firefighters began passing the hat Wednesday to help a young couple who lost their house to the fire. The blaze has also destroyed some other structures, including a garage filled with the possessions of a family that was building a house.
Some 1,500 homes remain threatened by the fire, which was about 2 miles away from the town that has about 5,000 summer residents. Residents remained in Seeley Lake, but hundreds of outlying homes were evacuated.
With highway access restricted to local traffic, shops on both sides of the two-lane road had relatively few customers.
Schweitzer said businesses affected by the fire will be able to apply for low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"When you are in the tourist business in Seeley Lake and the highway is closed for even a day in August, the threshold (for help) has been met," he said.
Meanwhile, a fireworks-caused fire just south of Billings prompted an evacuation order affecting more than 240 homes Tuesday, fire officials said.
The 125- to 150-acre fire was reported at about 4 p.m. and was burning in grass, brush and trees just outside the Briarwood subdivision. The evacuation order was lifted about 9:45 p.m. The fire was started by a 12-year-old boy who was playing with fireworks,Billings Fire Marshal Frank Odermann told The Billings Gazette newspaper.
When flames broke out, the boy called 911, Odermann said. His name was not released.
North of Plains, residents of about 50 rural homes in the path of the 45,000-acre Chippy Creek fire were told to evacuate Tuesday, said Bob Dyson, fire information officer.
The 431-acre Tin Cup fire west of Darby also prompted the evacuation of 37 residences.
Evacuations remained in effect at several other blazes in the state, including a complex of fires southeast of Missoula and a fire southwest of Whitefish that has burned 18,927 acres, or 29.5 square miles.
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