HELENA – A late-season wildfire that came amid unseasonably warm weather and was pushed by strong winds ripped through a tiny central Montana farming town overnight, burning 24 homes and four grain elevators that had stood for more than a century.
Officials were assessing the damage in Denton on Thursday while crews continued to fight the fire, which burned 22 square miles of prairie and agricultural land.
“Rural fire agencies are continuing to work to prevent any further spread or damage,” the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook Thursday morning. “This work will continue for several more days.”
The nearly 300 residents of the town were evacuated early Wednesday afternoon when a fire started by a downed power line in an adjacent county the night before pushed across 6 miles of drought-stricken land.
The grain elevators near the railroad tracks caught fire first and the blaze spread into town, said Undersheriff Tracy Lewellyn.
“Unfortunately we lost numerous houses on the south side of town, but thankfully no one was hurt!” the sheriff’s office posted Wednesday night.
The power outage due to the downed power lines shut off water pumps, leaving the town without water, officials said.
The evacuation order was lifted at noon Thursday, Lewellyn said. Only essential traffic was being allowed in the area and some residences that survived the fire were still without power. Montana Highway 81 west of Denton was closed because a bridge was destroyed by the fire. A railroad bridge in the same area was also destroyed.
Other fires have been burning in Montana in recent days as gusty winds fanned the flames amid drought and unseasonably warm temperatures.
Areas of Montana east of the Continental Divide have had down-sloping west winds for about a week, the National Weather Service said.
With such winds, the air warms and wind speeds increase as the air moves down the slope of the Rocky Mountains, said Cody Moldan, a meteorologist in Great Falls.
Several areas of the state saw record wind gusts on Wednesday and the town of Jordan in central Montana reached a high temperature of 78 degrees.
Central Montana is among several areas of Montana that are experiencing exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
From Sept. 1 through Nov. 30, Lewistown recorded 1.09 inches of precipitation, which is 3.08 inches below normal for those three months, the weather service said. Meanwhile, the average temperature in November was 7 degrees above normal.
Thursday was expected to be the last really warm, windy day, Moldan said. A weak cold front is forecast to move into northern Montana on Friday with a stronger cold front on Saturday afternoon that will bring winds, but also some precipitation, he said.
Other fires burning in Montana on Wednesday included one south of Great Falls that burned 11 homes and seven garages along with sheds and vehicles. About 65 people were evacuated, Cascade County officials said.
There were two grass fires near Browning, where there were also power outages because the wind was knocking trees into power lines, officials said.
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