Fires Force Evacuation of Homes in Eureka, Montana Area

Authorities ordered the evacuation of a number of homes near the small town of Eureka in northwestern Montana because of a wildfire that erupted Sunday and had burned about 875 acres.

Information on the exact number of homes evacuated was not immediately available Monday from Forest Service or Lincoln County officials. The American Red Cross opened a shelter at a Eureka church for evacuees needing a place to stay.

The Camp 32 fire destroyed a shed and a piece of logging equipment, said Jennifer Brady, a Forest Service spokeswoman. Most of the blaze was in the Kootenai National Forest, she said. Some state and private land burned, as well.

The fire, which the Forest Service initially estimated at 1,500 acres or more, was one of a number of new blazes that erupted over the weekend, most believed to have been caused by a lightning storm that moved across the western part of the state.

Officials said it was not immediately clear what started the fire near Eureka. Firefighting Monday include about 120 people, an air tanker and two helicopters.

Bulldozers and shovel crews dug a line that encircled the fire, but officials stopped short of declaring it contained. The weather remained hot and dry, the forecast indicated imminent wind and the fire easily could burn past the line, said Rebecca Doty, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Near Alberton, an evacuation order remained in effect for 10 homes, in a drainage south of town, that were threatened by one of four fires that started last week along Interstate 90.

The fires had burned more than 4,000 acres as of Monday morning, the equivalent of 6 square miles. Fire spokeswoman Sharon Sweeney said two of the blazes were no longer considered serious threats, but the other two fires were only about 30 percent contained, and forecasts of potentially strong winds Monday had crews worried. Some 850 firefighters were on the blazes.

The fires were threatening not only near the 10 homes, but also a major Bonneville Power Administration powerline that supplies electricity to Pacific Northwest.

Trish Hogervorst, another fire information officer, the fire was still about a mile from the powerline, and crews were working to slow its advance.

''There are two drainages between the fire and the BPA line and there's a lot of fuel in there,'' she said. ''We're hoping we can hold it so it doesn't keep burning in that direction.''

The cause of the fires, which erupted along the interstate on Thursday, remained under investigation. They forced officials to close a 90-mile stretch of I-90 on Thursday. By the end of the weekend, eastbound lanes and one westbound lane through the fire area were open to traffic, but speeds were reduced as a precaution along a 20-mile stretch.

Fire spokeswoman Elsha Kirby said at least one firefighter had witnessed a rollover crash in the area. Drivers had been told to expect reduced speeds, smoke, firefighting equipment and even wildlife along the roadway, but many still were not paying attention, Kirby said.

''We're worried not just about firefighter safety, but about the public driving along and rubbernecking,'' she said.

Elsewhere, the lighting-caused Prospect fire had grown to about 1,200 acres by Monday morning. It was burning in the Lolo National Forest near St. Regis.

In the Bitterroot National Forest to the south, the Rock Creek fire complex was estimated to have burned about 3,500 acres. Control efforts included helicopter water drops, although a Type II management team was expected to take over on Monday, forest spokeswoman Christine Romero said.

Officials reported lightning strikes had caused more than 30 fires over the weekend, but most of them were less than an acre and crews were brought in quickly to contain them.

The Kelly Point fire, discovered Saturday near Black Bear Cabin in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, was believed to be human caused and had grown to an estimated 500 acres by Sunday, Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

The blaze jumped the South Fork Flathead River and was spreading east up Hodag Creek drainage. Crews were working to protect the Forest Service's Black Bear Cabin, used as a summer work center.

The lightning-caused Limestone Peak fire ballooned to about 100 acres Sunday from just 10 acres the day before. It was burning in a remote area of the wilderness area, Germann said.