Wind-pushed fires force evacuations, burn homes in Montana

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Hundreds of people in the town of Denton were forced to flee flames pushed by strong winds in central Montana on Wednesday, while a fire south of the city of Great Falls burned 11 homes as well as sheds and other small buildings, officials said.

Downed power lines are believed to be the cause of a fire that started north of Stanford on Tuesday night and spread to Denton by early Wednesday afternoon. Officials said some structures in town had caught fire but it wasn’t immediately clear how many.

The Fergus County Sheriff’s Office evacuated the approximately 300 residents of Denton and the Red Cross had a shelter set up at the Civic Center in Lewistown. Denton schools reported evacuating students at about 1:30 p.m.

The size of the fire was not available, officials said.

South of Great Falls, a fire that was reported at about 2:40 a.m. was pushed so quickly by strong winds that it skipped over some patches of grass as it spread to burn 112 acres (46 hectares), Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jeremy Jones said.

“At this point we’ve lost 11 houses, seven garages and 11 outbuildings,” Jones told the Great Falls Tribune. “That doesn’t even begin to count the vehicles and things of that nature.”

About 65 people evacuated. No injuries were reported. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Near Glacier National Park, Browning Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday due to the wind, the fire east of town and a loss of electricity, Superintendent Corrina Guardipee-Hall posted on Facebook.

Tribal offices were also closed and about 100 people in the community of Blackfoot evacuated, with a shelter set up at Browning Middle School, officials said.

About 1,300 residences in Browning and surrounding communities lost power at some point due to the wind knocking trees into power lines, said Jonnalea Tatsey, member services manager for Glacier Electric Cooperative. The longest outage was about six hours, she said.

The fire burned up to 3/4 of a square mile (2 square kilometers) and its cause was unknown, Carter Gallineaux with Blackfeet Fire Management told the Great Falls Tribune.

“We haven’t had significant moisture in nine months. Everything is really dry. We’ve been in a ‘red flag’ for the last seven days. Usually, we have snow on the ground. Last September, we had snow. Now it’s December and no snow,” Gallineaux said.

The fire started at about 4:20 a.m. and was declared contained at around 11 a.m., Montana Right Now reported.

A high wind warning was in effect along the Rocky Mountain Front on Wednesday, with potential gusts of up to 90 mph (145 kph) in the Browning area and up to 70 mph (113 kph) in the areas around Great Falls and Denton, the National Weather Service said.

Deep Creek, an area southwest of Browning, registered a wind gust of 108 mph (174 kph) just before 6:30 a.m., the weather service said.

Record high temperatures in the upper 60s and into the 70s were reported around the state on Wednesday.

As of 3 p.m., Jordan had reached 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius), Helena’s high was 69 F (21 C) and Havre reached 68 F (20C), the National Weather Service reported. Missoula and Kalispell set all-time highs for the month of December with temperatures above 60 F (16 C).