Firefighters gain on Montana fire that forced evacuation of ski area

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 29, 2015 9:14 PM

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Firefighters in Montana on Sunday were working to contain a wildfire that forced the evacuation of hundreds from a ski area as flames driven by high winds threatened to engulf the only road to and from the resort, officials said.

The Red Lodge Mountain Ski Area in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in south central Montana resumed operations on Sunday after skiers were told to leave the day before as a safety precaution.

No other structures were under evacuation orders as moderating weather conditions were expected to give fire crews the upper hand for the first time in two days, said fire information officer Jeff Gildehaus.

The blaze was one of several that broke out on Saturday in southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where unseasonably warm temperatures and winds gusting up to 60 miles an hour gave rise to extreme fire behavior usually seen in late fall in the Northern Rocky Mountain states, Gildehaus said.

The fire has charred 700 acres of steep, forested terrain intersected by grasslands. While Gildehaus said that the fire was thought to be set my people, it was unclear whether the blaze was intentional.

Overcast skies, rising humidity and lower temperatures on Sunday allowed crews to begin building containment lines for a blaze that just the day before had advanced rapidly with the aid of winds that swept burning branches and other fiery debris half a mile in front of the fire's main flank.

More than 50 firefighters backed by five engines were on the lookout for undetected embers that could easily be fanned by wind gusts, Gildehaus said.

"We're on a search-and-destroy mission to find anything that's still smoldering," he said.

Elsewhere in Montana, fire crews battled to control a blaze that destroyed two homes after igniting on Saturday in grass- and timber-lands west of Billings.

The cause of that fire, which has burned 3,000 acres, is under investigation, officials said.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Diane Craft)