Montana wildfire grows to 5,800 acres |

Montana wildfire grows to 5,800 acres

RED LODGE, Mont. ” Employees of the Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort were running at least eight snowmaking guns Monday to spray water on its two lodges and several lift shacks to help protect the area from a 5,800-acre fire burning about two miles away.

“The ski area is a very high priority for everyone involved,” said Tom Kuntz, Red Lodge volunteer fire chief.

“It’s a significant economic driver for the community six months out of the year. By keeping the ski area viable, we keep the community viable.”

The snowmaking guns, which draw water from ponds near the top of the mountain, were recently purchased as part of a planned makeover of the resort by its new owners, JMA Ventures.

A national incident command team took over responsibility for firefighting operations Monday morning, as officials increased the fire’s acreage due to better mapping.

“They got a lot of resources in last night: structure trucks, hand crews.

There’s going to be a fair number of firefighters on the line today,” said Darrel Krum, the Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator for Carbon County.

The Cascade fire, reported Saturday afternoon, has burned five summer homes and an outbuilding in the historic Camp Senia area. Another 25 homes nearby were saved.

“Our priorities are protection of Red Lodge, the Red Lodge ski area and associated subdivisions,” said Dixie Dies, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

Some crews were working to build fire lines on the west end of the blaze while fire bosses were making plans for fire lines ahead of the blaze, which was burning along a two-mile front Monday.

Officials are concerned that winds forecast to blow 25 mph to 35 mph on Tuesday could push the fire further to the east, toward Red Lodge Mountain.

“That is exactly what we don’t want,” said Greg Poncin, a deputy incident commander.

“Fires tend to burn along in this country until winds align with the canyon and they can run out (of the canyon) with a vengeance.”

Fire bosses said heavy airtankers were available for retardant drops.

Three helicopters, 27 engines, four water tenders, a bulldozer, three 20-person hand crews and 50 support staff were assigned to the fire, with personnel totaling 200.

Fire officials say the engines are assigned to structure protection and more have been ordered.

The Grizzly Peaks subdivision about three miles west of Red Lodge was evacuated Sunday as a precaution. There are an estimated 40 to 50 homes in the subdivision.

Another 40 to 50 homes west of Red Lodge also were evacuated.

In the Tipi Village subdivision, about five miles from the fire, homeowner Kyle Tompkins was ready Monday for a quick evacuation if the blaze moved his way.

“I did wet the grass a little bit, but what can you do?” asked Tompkins, 47, who works from a home office. “If it’s time, there’s not much a garden hose is going to do.”

Tompkins said and others in Tipi Village had expected that a major fire in the mountains above their homes was “just a matter of time.”

That expectation grew after an intense wind storm in November knocked down trees across several thousand acres ” including where the Cascade fire is now burning.

Realizing the danger of having so many houses near or even within the forest, the Red Lodge fire department this year began conducting fire risk assessments.

Jon Trapp, the firefighter in charge of the effort, said houses examined ranged from those with ample treeless buffer zones and tin roofs to structures with wooden shingles and vegetation right up to the doorstep.

“They started to do some work up there in Grizzly Peak (to make homes more fire safe), but they’ve got a long way to go,” Trapp said.

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