Fire rages in Moccasins

Fire near Lewistown blows up Monday
Thursday, October 7, 2021
Fire rages in Moccasins

A volunteer fire truck drives down Hanover Road amid growth of the South Moccasin fire in the background. The fire quickly grew to nearly 12,000 acres after its discovery around 1 p.m. on Monday. Photo courtesy of Katherine Sears

Fire rages in Moccasins

Smoke from the South Moccasin Fire, which ignited Monday, funnels above the town of Moccasin. Photo courtesy of Susan Ashcraft

Fire rages in Moccasins

The funnel of smoke from the South Moccasin Fire northwest of Lewistown was visible Monday throughout Central Montana. Shown here is the plume stretching all the way to the horizon in Stanford. Photo by Melody Montgomery

A fire that exploded in the South Moccasin Mountains northwest of Lewistown on Monday had grown to 12,800 acres as of 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 6 as of Wednesday morning, with 45% containment.

Giant clouds of nuclear-like smoke and violent flames could be seen from nearly every direction around the entire South Moccasin range as the blaze ran from the southwest, where it ignited, to the northeast toward the Denton Highway. The area contains heavy timber and grass.

Smoke was discovered shortly before 1 p.m. on Monday, and the fire was initially reported to be five acres, according to Alex Schwier, public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Schwier said the fire quickly grew to 1,000 acres by the end of the day, and more overnight. Its footprint was expected to grow, hinging heavily on the unseasonal weather conditions and drought that continues to plague the West.

“With the red flag conditions today, there’s going to be some growth on it,” said Schwier. “The weather is there for extreme fire behavior.”

According to Fire Information Officer Kristin Sleeper with the DNRC, the South Moccasin fire was the highest priority wildfire in the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group’s territory. That designation means firefighting resources released from other fires will be repositioned here.

On Monday, volunteer, state, and federal agencies were busy working the fire line on the eastern, southern, and northern edges of the fire. On Tuesday, DNRC assumed command of the the fire. The south eastern edge remains most active. Agencies were working to hold the fire at the Denton Highway as red flag conditions continued throughout the day Tuesday.

The Denton Highway was closed from Highway 191 west of Lewistown to Danvers Road on Monday evening and remained closed on Tuesday as crews continued containment efforts. Schwier asked residents to stay away from the area as there is heavy fire traffic on the road and in the area. She asked that folks watch from a distance, as the fire is visible for miles. There is also a temporary flight restriction in the area, and everyone is asked to refrain from flying drones in the local airspace.

Several aircraft were assigned to the fire Monday and Tuesday, including Type 1 and Type 2 helicopters, as well as planes, which could be seen weaving in and out of heavy smoke to drop fire retardant and water, taken from nearby ponds, to slow the blaze.

Much focus seemed to be on slowing the fire on the southwest end of the range, where communication towers are located. Schwier said agencies planned to conduct damage assessment on the towers and other infrastructure Tuesday.

Fergus County resident Dani Phillips, whose family owns a ranch on the north side of the range, said the fire made a run down the butte near their house overnight Monday.

“No one slept last night,” said Phillips. “It ran down the side of the butte toward the house. We’ve lost about 85% of the land behind the home.”

Phillips described the scene as “amazing” as the fire seemed to be under control, then flare up seconds later, and firefighters worked through the night to save the house.

During the initial attack on Monday, one helicopter experienced a mechanical issue and the pilots executed a precautionary landing along Hanover Road. A maintenance team was evaluating what repairs were needed as of Tuesday afternoon.

According to a press release from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, no structures were burned as of Tuesday, and Schwier said no injuries were reported.

The DNRC County Assist Team took command of the fire on Tuesday at noon and David Hamilton was listed as the incident commander.

No evacuation or pre-evacuation orders were issued, and Schwier said in the event those would be implemented, the order would come from the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, and the Sheriff’s Office was conducting and investigation Tuesday, according to Schwier.

Fire summer

The South Moccasin Fire is the second large blaze the county has experienced this summer. The Taylor Fire burned over 20,000 acres between Denton and Winifred the beginning of August. That fire involved some timber fuels and thousands of acres of grassland.

This is also the second large fire in the South Moccasin Mountains in the past two decades. In November 2007, a wind driven fire blackened 1,500 acres, mostly of private lands, including on Phillips’ ranchland.

According to the governor’s fire briefing, as of Monday, Oct. 4, there were eight active large fire incidents in Montana, and the state remained in preparedness level 2. Since Jan. 1, there have been over 2,502 fire starts in Montana, burning around 915,000 acres. Since last week, there have been 60 new fire starts.

The largest fire burning in Montana is the Trail Creek Fire, at nearly 62,000 acres.

Of the state’s $105 million fire suppression budget, about $56.7 million has been spent fighting fire since the start of the fiscal year.

Editor's note: This article was updated at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 7 to provide the most recent acreage and containment (12,500 acres and 45% contained, compared to 11,750 acres and 0% contained as written in the first sentence) when the Juith Basin Press article originally printed at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 6. For daily updates, visit InciWeb at