HAPPENING NOW: Rock Creek Fire near Red Lodge

The fire is human-caused & under investigation

On Tuesday, Aug. 20, a fire broke out near East Road and U.S. Highway 212 approximately five miles south of Red Lodge, now named the Rock Creek Fire. It extended west across the highway from Rock Creek Resort and further southward covering 700 acres on Wednesday. The fire started on the north side, not more than a few miles south of Point of Rocks. On site, were torching trees and black, smoldering earth. A fawn fled east across the highway. The acrid, piney smell of destruction hung in the hot air. The normally blue sky was a dull yellow haze with a smoky red sun peaking through. A dozen fire trucks, emergency vehicles and police cars lined the highway as equipment was unloaded and crews worked the fire at roadside. One firefighter sprayed a shed with foam. Near Rock Creek Resort, people sat alongside the highway in lawn chairs near their homes, watching the scene. According to Jeff Gildehaus, USFS Fire Information Officer, on Tuesday, it was “man caused.” “We are seeking any leads about this fire,” he said. A vehicle was spotted in the area earlier. “It began around 2:30 p.m. as determined by our Type 3 Incident Commander, Drew Brown. Brown is also our local USFS Assistant Fire Management Officer.” A Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management team was flying in Wednesday. Gildehaus said, “they can bring all kinds of horse power with them.” They will be briefed that evening and Gildehaus said, “they will probably ‘take’ the fire on Thursday.” Fire support from Custer N.F., Red Lodge Rural District 7 and Montana DNRC streamed in to assist but because of area fires, Gildehaus said, “there are uber thin resources.” Twenty Type 6 engines were coming with an average of three men per vehicle. Rock Creek Resort is a major tourist and conference venue for Red Lodge. The fire is the Rock Creek drainage in a valley that leads to the City of Red Lodge. He said, “Nearby Rock Creek Resort is closed and guests have evacuated. Three homes nearby were also evacuated. The team (40-50) are giving pre-evacuation notices all along the south area to homeowners.” People are calling to help relocate animals. For now, the main thrust of the fire is moving slowly south, but Gildehaus cautioned, “It could change anytime. We expect down canyon winds tonight. A roadside burnout will create a defensible fire line with the road.” It could still jump the highway where homes and the Resort are located. Although the fire had calmed down with the moisture of evening he said, “It ran like a racehorse earlier on.” He expected it to pick up again tomorrow. Gildehaus outlined the attack: “The burned out Willie Fire will be our stopping point to the south; we will work to hold it at the top of the ridge to the west and along the flank of the northern dozer line.” Two local men were bulldozing fire lines in the area Tuesday, one a Carbon County employee and Red Lodge resident Jody Klessens. On Monday, Aug. 19, Gov. Bullock signed a State of Emergency for Carbon and 30 other counties. It will help in fire preparedness to access aid. The area was originally closed from Red Lodge south on Highway 212 to any traffic as homeowners tried frantically to get back to their properties. Huge plumes of smoke could be seen billowing up from behind the hills south of Red Lodge. As of Wednesday, U.S. Highway 212 is closed 3 miles south of Red Lodge. Traffic is being rerouted to MT 308 to Belfry. The highway is closed in Wyoming at the Long Lake gate near the bottom of Beartooth Pass. Ranchers had livestock in the area. Some cattle stood next to Rock Creek Resort, its parking lot now an active staging station, eyeing the whole scene. One vehicle has state of the art, independent communications capacity for satellite, internet, phone service, etc. and is manned by local people. As of Wednesday, a burn-out was completed along the east side of the fire to remove fuel by the highway. One firefighter was injured during initial attack on Tuesday, and transported to Billings Clinic in Red Lodge with non-life threatening injuries. A containment line has been built on the north flank of the fire. On Thursday, the Interagency Type 2 team should be in command and in action. Previously, the rural fire departments had assisted the USFS as lead agency. Heavy air tankers dropped fire retardant along the north and western edge of the fire along ridge tops to slow fire growth. First on the scene Tuesday afternoon was a P-2 air tanker out of Missoula from Neptune Aviation. It carried 2,000 gallons and can refuel in Billings. According to Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder, “The USFS has a main command post out of Boise, ID, the NIFC site. It receives the call from the incident commander for assistance through Billings dispatch. At that point, whatever assistance is needed, whether tankers or helicopters, etc., they try to fill the request.” Gildehaus said the main reason for the quick response to the request was the fact that homes and properties were threatened. The Pollard Hotel and Comfort Inn have received several people from south of Red Lodge. To the west are steep slopes, heavy forest and little access. It was difficult to see how far the fire stretched southward past Rock Creek Resort but it appeared to go at least a half mile beyond. Gildehaus said he felt it coming Monday. “It was going crazy west of us. The Emigrant Fire made a 6,000 acre run yesterday afternoon; one of the Park (Yellowstone National Park) fires made a 4,000 acre run. The atmospheric conditions were just right. The weather’s not changing much this week. Hot and dry.” When informed that a 20 percent chance of rain is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday and local people are praying for rain Gidehaus cautioned, “without lightning.” See carboncountynews.com for breaking news.