Editor’s note: As of 9:30 p.m. Saturday, the data webpage “Inciweb,” which is updated by the Central Montana Type III Incident Command Team with information about the North Hills Fire, said the blaze had burned at least 5,000 acres. The information was soon after shared by Lewis and Clark County Emergency Management to social media. That figure was later changed by the Incident Command Team to 2,600 acres as of Sunday morning. This article has been updated to reflect the latest count.
HELENA – Authorities say the North Hills Fire, burning in the mountains north of Helena, has grown substantially Saturday. Firefighters’ goal now is to keep the fire away from nearby residential areas.
As of 9 a.m. Sunday morning, incident commanders estimated the fire had burned at least 2,600 acres. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton issued additional evacuation orders, for residents in the American Bar and Eldorado Heights subdivisions. Leaders said the fire was moving into the Black Sandy Loop area, and they wanted to be prepared in case it crossed the Missouri River.
Those evacuations came in addition to the evacuations previously ordered on Friday night and earlier Saturday, which remain in place. Dutton said the earlier orders covered about 200 homes in the forested area between Mountain Meadows Road, North Slope Road and Hauser Dam Road.
Authorities held a public meeting at Warren Elementary School to update residents on the fire.
On Saturday afternoon, the fire began putting out more visible smoke, as temperatures rose and the wind pushed flames to the northeast. That created a much wider active fire front. Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Drake said firefighters expected the wind to shift in the evening, pushing that newly expanded front toward homes to the southeast.
“If it does, there’s nothing but fuel until it gets to the timberline,” he said.
Drake said the fire has been burning in downed timber and other heavy fuels. That has made it especially difficult to stop it from spreading. Fire retardant dropped by air tankers hasn’t been as effective because the fuels have carried the fire through treated areas.
Now, firefighters say their goal is to push the fire around the neighborhoods.
“We create a bubble around as many structures as we can, using the roads, using water,” said Drake.
Drake said fire crews were going through the residential area house by house, trying to remove any combustible material to create defensible space around the homes.
Leaders say it is still too early to say when the neighborhoods might be safe enough that residents can return.
Many of the evacuated residents attended the meeting at Warren School. Among them were Chato and Shari Hazelbaker, who moved into the affected area just a few weeks ago. On Saturday, they received an emergency message from the county, telling them to evacuate.
“We just tried to be timely and efficient and load up what we wanted to hang onto – things like photo albums – then jump in the car with our daughter and the dog, and get out of the area,” said Shari Hazelbaker.
Some of the residents had questions about how firefighters were attacking the fire, including several who asked why more air support had not been used. Authorities said airdrops would not have been enough to stop the fire.
The Hazelbakers said they came to hear more about what was going on with the fire, but also what they could do in the future to reduce the fuel on their property and improve their defensible space. They said they were glad to get a better picture of what was happening.
“The offices represented here tonight did a nice job, and it sounds like they’re doing what they need to do to keep all those homes safe,” Chato Hazelbaker said.
The North Hills Fire is currently being handled by a Type 3 incident management team, but authorities have already called for a larger Type 2 team to take over. They will arrive in the coming days.
Leaders say about 140 responders are currently fighting the fire, including nine engines and two helicopters.
You can find updated information about the fire on Inciweb.