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HAMILTON – Strong winds and unexpected fire behavior late Tuesday afternoon prompted the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office to begin notifying some residents near Lost Horse Road to prepare for possible evacuation because of the Observation fire.

The Ravalli County Sheriff's Office announced a Stage 1 alert, meaning a high probability of needing to evacuate for Gold Creek, including Whispering Pines and Highland Drive south to U.S. Highway 93 to Lost Horse Road and including both sides of Lost Horse Road.

Law enforcement will attempt to make personal visits to each resident and business living in the affected area.

The fire grew much worse at about 4:30 Tuesday afternoon when it jumped the eastern ridge and ran laterally down the east slope. At that point, all fire crews, more than 110, were pulled off the line because of "extreme fire behavior," the forest service reported.

Meanwhile at least one helicopter was grounded because of high winds during the afternoon. One fire tanker was dousing the flames with fire retardant. Three more air tankers have been ordered. 

The fire, in the Bitterroot National Forest, is still estimated at 322 acres, but it's the hot, dry weather, winds and low relative humidity that make the fire conditions extremely dangerous.

Already, helicopters have dropped more than 100,000 gallons of water. An additional 2,600-gallon helicopter has been called in.

A new road and area closure order now includes Lost Horse Creek Road from the junction with Lick Creek Road, west to Twin Lakes, Schumaker Campground and Bear Creek Pass Trailhead due to firefighter safety and public safety concerns.

There are flight restrictions above the fire. Lake Como and Coyote Coulee trails remain open. Helicopters may dip water from Lake Como and people recreating are advised to stay clear of any aircraft.

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Bitterroot Forest Fire Management Officer Mark Wilson said it took the perfect storm for the Observation fire to take off this early in the season.

High winds accompanied the thunderstorm that brought the lightening strike to the steep mountainside.

“Those high winds drove the fire through its first 100-plus acres on Friday afternoon and evening,” Wilson said. “That got the fire established and since then it’s been burning through a lot of dead and down material that’s fairly dry.”

The fact that there is still a lot of green vegetation on the forest floor has kept a lid on the fire so far.

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“If it wasn’t for that green component, this fire would have gone really big really fast,” Wilson said.

Firefighters have been challenged by very low relative humidity levels that are measuring about 12 percent.

“Anything below 20 percent is fairly critical from a firefighter’s standpoint,” Wilson said. “When the relative humidity gets below 20 percent, it gets really difficult to control a fire.”

There is also a lot of subalpine fir in the area of the fire, which torches easily. That sends sparks flying up in air, which then spreads the fire out even further.

Because the fire jumped to the east, it has officials concerned. Heading east means threatening a heavily timbered landscape that leads into residential areas.

Monday evening lookouts reported three new small lightening caused fires. One near Dowling Gulch on the Sula Ranger District, one at Scimitar, a mile northeast of Magruder and one at Cache Creek in the Nez Perce Pass on the West Fork Ranger District. Bitterroot National Forest fire crews are responding.

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