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Montana fire prompts evacuations

The Skibstad fire burns southeast of Columbus, Mont., on Wednesday. The fire was moving toward a 124-house rural subdivision Thursday. (Associated Press)
The Skibstad fire burns southeast of Columbus, Mont., on Wednesday. The fire was moving toward a 124-house rural subdivision Thursday. (Associated Press)

Disaster declaration sought for southeastern part of state

BILLINGS – Mandatory evacuations were ordered Thursday for residents of 20 to 30 houses in southern Montana after a 5-square-mile wildfire surged toward a rural subdivision.

The order from Stillwater County commissioners covered the Hermit Creek subdivision and a five-mile stretch of Shane Creek Road south of Columbus.

Firefighters made some progress Thursday on the back end of the Skibstad fire, reporting that it was 35 percent contained by late afternoon. But on the fire’s leading edge, a steady breeze was pushing the blaze toward houses.

“That north and northeast portion up by the homes is a lot of concern,” said Paula Short with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

A shelter for evacuees was set up at Columbus High School.

As flames approached within a couple miles of his property on Shane Creek Road, Shane Fouhy said he was packing some belongings, setting out sprinklers to water down his house and yard and heading into Columbus to stay with relatives.

“I’ve been out all morning watering and the wind is kind of whirling,” he said. “It’s burning in all directions.”

Some structures were confirmed burned; how many and whether any were houses remained unclear. No injuries have been reported.

Residents of dozens more houses were put on notice that they, too, might have to go. State officials say there are 124 homes in the area.

The fire started Wednesday evening in a secondary building on Skibstad Road and quickly spread across the surrounding landscape. Pushed south by the wind through timber, grass and sage brush, it reached into areas of Carbon County.

About 250 people were helping fight the fire, along with a heavy air tanker and several smaller aircraft.

A federal incident management team was to take over the battle against the fire.

Elsewhere in Montana, the Wolf Creek fire north of Winnett grew to more than 9 square miles but was 70 percent contained Thursday afternoon, the Great Falls Tribune reported. The lightning-caused fire had threatened five houses and 10 outbuildings.

The nearby 15 Mile fire that began Wednesday had burned 1,350 acres, the newspaper reported. No structures were threatened.

In western Montana, the 5-square-mile Mission Road fire was reported to be 85 percent contained.

Near Lincoln, officials said a three-story lodge destroyed in a 43-acre fire that started Tuesday in the Roger’s Pass area was worth an estimated $3 million, according to the Helena Independent Record. The cause of that blaze, known as Joe’s Mountain fire, was under investigation.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday asked President Barack Obama to declare a disaster area for parts of southeast Montana with damage from the Ash Creek fire.