HELENA – Firefighters in the Tobacco Root mountains held off a wildfire from reaching a remote university research station and then turned their attention Wednesday to keeping flames away from a historic mining town.
The Pony fire had burned about 7 square miles west of Three Forks, including a bridge. But Indiana University’s field station, where students come to study Montana’s rocks, was unscathed and 80 residences were saved.
Crews outlasted a difficult day where gusting winds at one point Tuesday sent tents rolling across their encampment near Whitehall and caused fears that blazes could escape containment lines, said fire information officer Alan Hoffmeister.
By Wednesday, most of the 362 firefighters were tackling the southwest corner of the fire, near the historic mining community of Mammoth, where officials remained concerned the fire line still wasn’t adequate.
“We’re hitting it hard today to improve that line and planning on calling it contained by July 8,” Hoffmeister said.
In all, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said there were at least five large, extended Montana wildfires. But that doesn’t account for all the activity that’s keeping crews busy across the state.
The Dry Creek fire about 5 miles north of Laurel, started Tuesday by a man grinding metal in his shop, was 40 percent contained after it expanded to about 3 square miles. Five structures were burned, though none were primary residences.
Paula Short of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said it could have been much worse.
“Just by grace, the wind blew the fire away from the structures,” Short said, adding that 80 firefighters and 20 engines are getting help from two helicopters to contain the rest of the fire.
The Ash Creek Complex fire remained the state’s largest, after it burned through 381 square miles in the Custer National Forest east of Lame Deer since it started in late June.
Ranches on the Ashland/Broadus divide remain threatened, and the Red Cross has a shelter set up that is housing people.
And the Horse Creek Fire, which continues to burn about 20 miles south of Hysham, is still being watched as a potential threat to the Williston Basin natural gas pipeline and two 500-kilovolt transmission lines.
Crews are also monitoring a new start, the estimated 3,000-acre Taylor Creek fire about a dozen miles southeast of the Fort Howes backcountry ranger station. About 150 firefighters are trying to protect grass feed for ranchers and homes.
“Grass for ranchers is the other gold,” said Dixie Dies, a spokeswoman. “They need to have feed for their cattle. Plus, with the extreme dry conditions we have, we’re not going to let something like that just go.”