Officials hope weather will help slow Bridger Foothills fire, but say work isn’t over

A fire that blew up over the weekend and burned 7,100 acres in the Bridgers continued growing slowly to the north on Sunday, and fire officials said there’s a lot of unburned fuel there.

The Bridger Foothills fire laid down Saturday night as cooler temperatures moved into Bozeman. But Sunday was another day with weather favorable for fire growth, and officials said helicopters were attacking a fire that picked up in the northwest corner of the burned area.

Corey Lewellen, Bozeman district ranger with Custer Gallatin Gallatin National Forest, said at a virtual public meeting Sunday afternoon that fire officials are hoping for help from the weather on Monday with cooler temperatures and moisture in the forecast. A winter weather advisory is in effect from noon to midnight Monday.

But, Lewellen said, “we’re a long way from being done with this incident.” He said the end of next week is expected to dry up and September is typically “awfully dry.”

Even when the fire is completely contained, Lewellen said, the impacts will linger, and officials will work on rehabilitation and resource protections. He said officials would also work with homeowners affected by the fire.

He said the fire isn’t going away anytime soon and that there’s still a lot of work to do.

“It’s hard. It’s impacting everybody. We recognize that,” Lewellen said. “We’re staying vigilant, keeping our heads up and moving forward as best as we can.”

The cause of the fire is undetermined.

The Forest Service announced road and trail closures in the Bridgers and Bangtails areas until Sept. 30.

Saturday afternoon, high wind stoked the fire northeast of Bozeman. The blaze prompted evacuations for residents of Bridger Canyon, Jackson Creek and Kelly Canyon. Residents in Brackett Creek and the Skunk Creek area of the Bangtails have been warned.

At an in-person meeting with fire officials on Sunday, Sheriff Brian Gootkin called Saturday “the perfect storm.” He said law enforcement evacuated more than 200 people up the canyon before the fire took off. He said it was “pretty amazing that we didn’t lose anyone.”

“I mean, and that is luck, but it’s also not by accident because we had a ton of people out there working hard,” Gootkin said.

The fire destroyed houses and other structures, but fire officials have yet to detail the extent of that damage.

People have been displaced from their homes. The Red Cross said it has helped 11 people into hotels and that it couldn’t provide a typical shelter because of the coronavirus. Gallatin County has assembled a list of ways to donate to displaced residents on its website.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department has a list of mental health resources on its website for people affected by the fire.

Gootkin said law enforcement would allow residents return to their homes once it’s safe to do so.

Extreme fire behavior entrapped three Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation firefighters. They deployed fire shelters as extreme heat and a rapid moving fire burned where they were at.

Hoyt Richards, area land manager with DNRC, said Sunday that the three firefighters “walked through the event.”

“We’re happy to say that they’re released right now and they’re on their way home,” he said.

Overnight and into Sunday morning, cooler temperatures calmed the fire. Residents who were evacuated Saturday night were allowed to return to their homes Sunday morning to gather more belongings and move livestock. They were told to leave by 11 a.m. when officials expected the fire to kick up.

Montana Highway Patrol troopers formed a barricade on Jackson Creek Road near Malmborg Elementary School where they allowed residents to enter “at their own discretion.”

A couple horse trailers parked at a nearby smoky intersection waited for stranded horses to come running through the canyon. A woman said people hauling trailers were there earlier and drove through the canyon to look for loose horses.

Houses along the road were surrounded by charred land, smoldering haystacks and other rubble from houses that were burnt during the blaze. People loaded cars parked in their driveways as planes assessing and dropping water on the nearby fire whirred overhead.

The green and brown pastures were spotted with black char that continued to produce smoke. The layered hills in the distance turned to black silhouettes behind a screen of smoke.

Addie Theisen, a homeowner in the area, grabbed buckets from her house and went across the road to put out hotspots in a pasture that held her three bulls. She was able to get the bulls into an enclosure in her yard before the fire burned some of the grass.

Theisen said she left her home Saturday. Her hay barn “blew up” sometime after that and continued to smolder on Sunday.

“God decided right now to save our place,” Theisen said. “It’s just … it’s just horrible.”

Jason Mendelson and his son Adam grabbed two buckets of water each and helped Theisen put out the hotspots.

The Mendelsons don’t have animals on their property, but Adam, 13, has visited Theisen for the past eight years to see her animals. He said he was concerned with fires near where the bulls are being held.

“They’re stuck in between those two fires, and that’s not good,” Adam said, referring to hay burning nearby and the fire on the mountain.

Gallatin County said late Sunday that evacuated residents would again be allowed to temporarily return on Monday between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m.

Montana’s U.S. Sen. Steve Daines attended the in-person meeting with fire officials. He said this fire was personal for him and that he was thankful no one has died because of the incident. The Bozeman native said he’s received messages from friends who live on the east side of the mountains who have lost their homes.

Daines said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for 75% of the cost to fight the fire, but said that Garfield County is expecting to see reimbursement next month for the Lodgepole fire, which burned in 2017.

“That’s a battle we’ll continue to fight in Washington on behalf of our community,” he said.