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Shifting Winds Fan Blaze South Of Helena

August 19, 1988

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Shifting wind abruptly fanned a week-old fire in the mountains on the outskirts of Helena, quadrupling the blaze to 20,000 acres, burning 10 houses and cabins and forcing dozens of residents to flee, authorities said Thursday.

″When I saw that that wall of flame, all I wanted to do was get out,″ said Carol Williams, one of at least 55 people ordered from their homes late Wednesday night in a mountain area 15 miles south of Helena.

Authorities had warned an additional 400 to 500 people in the nearby Saddle Mountain subdivision, where large wooded lots are several hundred yards from each other, they might have to evacuate. But Thursday’s winds turned the flames away from the area, said Art Howell of the Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.

About 40 people living in the Elkhorn Mountains south of here remained out of their homes Thursday afternoon.

The Warm Springs blaze began when a four-wheel-drive vehicle caught fire Aug. 9. Wind changed the fire’s dirction Wednesday evening from the east to the north, and flames quickly burned a 3-mile-wide swath, fire officials said. Four houses and six summer cabins were burned, said fire information officer Bob Krepps.

The fire grew to 17,000 acres by Thursday morning, up from about 5,000 acres the day before. By Thursday afternoon, it was estimated at 20,000 acres. Officials had no estimate of when the fire might be contained.

″The fire burned heavily all through the night,″ said Anne Jeffery, a fire information officer.

″You could hear the fire coming,″ said Barbara Duffy, whose cabin and herd of 30 cows were destroyed by flames.

″It sounded like a train,″ she said. ″Then when we came out of the garage, we saw this fireball coming at us through the trees. It was the strangest feeling.″

Gov. Ted Schwinden flew in a helicopter over the fire and said he feared it would get worse. ″The wind has come up, the humidity is down, the temperature is up and we still have a serious fire situation,″ he said.

Elsewhere in Montana, firefighters battled blazes covering more than 15,000 acres, while fires also continued at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and other parts of the West.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters from at least 15 states were battling the blaze near Helena, said Bobb Lawrence, a fire foreman in the Department of State Lands. Firefighting costs had reached $1.5 million.

Assisting were three airplanes dropping fire retardant, 10 helicopters, 12 bulldozers, at least 25 pumper trucks and six water supply trucks. The Montana National Guard was not activated, but 20 guard volunteers were helping fight the fire, and guard trucks and helicopters were being used.

Red Cross spokesman Gary Yundt said check-in stations at the east and west edges of the fire had registered about 55 evacuees, including 15 who left their homes near the community of Winston at the fire’s east edge.

Evacuees said they spent much of the night moving personal belongings, farm equipment and vehicles from their homes to safer areas.

″I want to go up there again,″ Williams said. ″I keep thinking of all the things I want to get.″

Leon Sperry, her neighbor, lamented: ″We have some of the most beautiful views. Now look at it - snags.″

Hundreds of miles away in southeastern Montana, about 1,000 firefighters Thursday held three fires totaling more than 13,500 acres at bay in grass and timberlands around Lame Deer, but an approaching weather front was viewed as a major threat.

″We’re watching the lightning in the distance right now,″ fire information officer Ron Smith said Thursday night.

The fires were mostly surrounded by fire lines Thursday night, and crews were poised to attack any new wind-caused flareups or new fires caused by lightning, he said.

″Our humidity is so low that they say a spot (fire) could go to 65 acres in 30 minutes. I guess that’s as close to spontaneous combustion as you can get,″ said Dave McMorran, another spokesman.

Wind expanded the Lost Canyon Fire in north-central Montana overnight, driving the flames across an additional 1,800 acres for a total of 4,800, officials said.

In Wyoming, Yellowstone officials said most areas of the park were open Thursday, but fallen trees from the 69,000-acre North Fork fire forced officials to once again put that area off-limits.

The fire is among several involving more than 272,000 acres of the nation’s oldest park.

In Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountains, firefighters struggled against steep, inaccessible terrain as they battled an arson fire that had consumed 1,000 acres of brush and timber. The fire, about 95 miles east of Los Angeles, was about 40 percent contained Thursday but continued to burn, threatening the Twin Pines Boys Camp near Idylwild.

In Idaho, two expert ″hotshot″ fire crews remained on the 260-acre Ladder Creek fire in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, working to complete a break line in front of the stubborn backcountry blaze.

Two fires in northern Utah, the 600-acre Sawmill No. 2fire and the 70-acre Hogsback fire, were reported under control Thursday.