Strong winds Sunday afternoon whipped up the Ash Creek fire east of Ashland, sending massive columns of thick gray smoke into the sky on the fire’s east side.
The fire grew about 13,000 acres to 170,000 acres by Sunday evening, said Kathy Bushnell, a fire spokeswoman. The fire is about 40 percent contained. Lightning started the wildfire on June 25 about 10 miles east of Lame Deer.
Fire officials issued an evacuation notice at 3 p.m. Sunday for residents in Stacey Creek, Marvel Creek, Little Pumpkin Creek, down to Highway 212. The Ash Creek fire was moving to the north and east, threatening structures.
The Powder River County sheriff was working to evacuate those areas.
The fire has spread past the Whitetail Cabin and the Holiday campground, but it was not known if those sites had burned, Bushnell said.
The fire is burning in heavy timber and it was not safe for firefighters to be in front of the blaze, she said. But crews were working along the flanks where it was safe and protecting structures with water and foam, she added.
High temperatures, low humidity and strong, sustained northwest winds at 20 mph to 30 mph spread the fire to the east toward areas that are now threatened, fire officials said.
About 28 people attended an informational meeting at St. Labre’s Mission in Ashland on Sunday afternoon, where Bushnell reviewed the progress so far and said critical fire conditions were expected through Monday morning.
At 2:30 p.m., the fire, fanned by southerly winds, was making a big run on its eastern side, north of the Wilbur Creek Road east of Ashland in Powder River County.
Smoke billowed high into the sky, dwarfing air tankers and helicopters attacking the fire.
“It’s burning so hot and so quickly,” Bushnell said, watching the scene from Highway 212.
Temperatures soared in Ashland on Sunday. The temperature was 106 degrees at 3:40 p.m. on the sign at First Community Bank Ashland. The National Weather Service reported the temperature was 101 shortly before 5 p.m.
Bushnell said the number of firefighters had increased from 400 to 513 and that a firefighting camp for about 200 firefighters was being set up in Ashland.
“We’re getting most all of the resources we need,” Bushnell said.
While the focus was on the fire’s east side, there are crews doing mop-up work and checking for hot spots on the fire’s west flank, she said.
There has been no evacuation order for Broadus, Bushnell said. But the fire continues threatening residences in the Wilbur, Whitetail, Beaver Creek and East Fork of Otter Creek areas, all of which remain evacuated.
Highway 212 remains closed to through traffic from Lame Deer to the junction of Highway 59 near Broadus.
Also on Sunday, Tongue River Electric Cooperative crews worked to restore power to the communities of Ashland, Lame Deer, Busby and Broadus.
The fire has damaged an estimated 120 transmission poles on the co-op’s system, said Dan Anderson, a project engineer.
Broadus had been out of power from Tuesday until Saturday night, Anderson said. The power went out again at 9:35 a.m. Sunday when two transmission lines went down between Ashland and Broadus, knocking out electricity to the four communities.
Tongue River has contract crews working to restore the transmission lines and its own crews are working on distribution lines, Anderson said.
Power was restored to Ashland, Lame Deer and Busby at about 1:45 p.m.
Power returned to Broadus at 7:20 p.m., said Alan See, the general manager.
About a half-dozen homes around Ashland were still without power but crews expected to get to them on Monday, See said. There also were a few residences without power on the East Fork of Otter Creek, where the fire was active, he said.
While the evacuation order for Ashland was lifted, the American Red Cross continued helping displaced persons at the Boys and Girls Club in Lame Deer.
April Carter, who is pregnant, her son, Cody Younghawk, 11, and daughter, Jaylene Younghawk, 6, have been staying at the shelter since leaving Rabbit Town, near Ashland, in a rush last Tuesday.
Carter, who said she was homeless before the fire, was staying at a residence that was damaged in the fire. When she left on Tuesday, she stored some items, like birth certificates for her children and some clothes, in her car. She’d been told the car had burned, but found it OK when she checked on it Saturday.
But her cousin’s house burned, she said.
“It was sad to see. My heart really goes out to them,” Carter said.
For now, Carter is staying in Lame Deer and hopes to meet with tribal officials on Monday about finding a place to live.
“So hopefully it will be soon. I know everything will work out,” she said.
Ken Warkentin, an American Red Cross worker from California, said fewer than 10 people had spent Saturday night at the Lame Deer shelter while 41 came for breakfast.
The Salvation Army from Casper, Wyo., was providing meals at the Lame Deer shelter.
On the Crow Reservation, fires crews on Sunday were working on the Bad Horse fire, a 3,143-acre wildfire that started Friday evening near Highway 212 about 11 miles east of the junction with Interstate 90. The fire burned to the south, according to a map of the fire at the Crow multipurpose building, where fire crews were staging.
Fire burns toward area proposed for logging to moderate fires
By BRETT FRENCH
The 157,000-acre Ash Creek fire burning northeast of Ashland is heading straight for a region of the Custer National Forest that, for almost a decade, the agency has wanted to log to lessen the intensity of just such a wildland fire.
“Had we been able to move forward with the project, the management action could have helped,” said Marna Daley, a public affairs officer for the Gallatin and Custer national forests. “But it’s impossible to predict to what degree.”
The project was repeatedly appealed by environmental groups, forcing the Forest Service to rewrite the plan three times.
The most recent version of what the Forest Service calls a “vegetation management plan” would have removed “ladder fuels,” spreading out the canopy between mature trees, and eliminated dense understory. The Beaver Creek project, approved in the spring of 2011, proposed to commercially log 1,487 acres, and set prescribed fire to 8,054 acres.
But a federal judge ordered the agency to rework its proposal to address stormwater runoff concerns regarding road building and road density. The Ashland Ranger District is conducting a supplemental environmental impact statement to address the judge’s ruling.
The fire may make the vegetation management project moot.
“Once the fire is under control we’ll have to determine how to proceed,” Daley said. “The assessment will have to include a much larger area, too, because the effects are much larger.”
The plan was proposed to deal with the kind of fire that is burning now. Thinning trees and understory could have meant the fire would have dropped to the ground, rather than race across the tree crowns.
“The project would not have prevented a fire from occurring,” Daley said. “That was not the purpose of the project. But it could have moderated the fire behavior. I say ‘could’ because with the extreme fire activity and behavior we’re seeing, it’s unknown.”
A popular Forest Service rental, the Whitetail Cabin, is in the path of the Ash Creek fire as it burns southeast. Firefighters had worked overnight to burn off fuels around the cabin and nearby Holiday Campground, Daley said. The cabin was also wetted down.