A minimum of 500 homes are under orders to evacuate due to a fast-moving fire that already had claimed a number of structures as it spread across 2,000 acres southwest of Hamilton Sunday. "We're just trying to get people out of the way now," said Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay. "We can rebuild homes. We need to get people out of this area." The fire started about 1 mile up Roaring Lion Road about a mile from a national forest trailhead. "It was first noticed probably at about 2 p.m. and by a quarter to 3 it was encroaching on homes," said Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman. "We skipped Stage 1 evacuations and went immediately to Stage 2, which is 'get out of here.'" By 9 p.m. Sunday, strong winds had pushed smoke from the fire to Butte. The acrid smoke was so thick that the Highlands could no longer be seen from Uptown. An estimated 200 homes were directly threatened by the fire Sunday night. Firefighters said they have confirmation that buildings have burned in the Judd Creek area but won't have a total number of buildings lost until Monday. Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn said the fire has been so intense that volunteer firefighters have been forced to fall back several times. "We have had limited opportunities to put out spot fires near homes, but the conditions are very volatile," Mohn said. "It's not safe to directly attack the fire. There are several hundred structures threatened." At 6 p.m., Hoffman said he had received verification of structures on fire in the Judd Creek area but won't have a specific number of buildings destroyed until Monday. "We are asking for people to cooperate," he said. "We can't let people back up there...this is a big area. If you pull the radar, you'll see the plume is huge. We've got fairly steady high winds up in the canyons and this fire has justlaunched." The Red Cross has set up two shelters for evacuees at the First Baptist Church at Lewis and Cooper lanes and at The River Church at 354 Cooper Ln. in Hamilton. Gates are open on the Ravalli County Fairgrounds for livestock. ABC Acres in Hamilton is also accepting livestock displaced from the fire. Retired West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell's first hint that something was wrong came when the sun turned red Sunday afternoon while he was taking a break from his annual chore of stacking firewood "far away from the house." Campbell knew the area where the fire was burning had a heavy fuel load. When he could see the flames, he noticed they were whirling. "You could tell there was very unstable air," he said. "When you see those fire whirls, you know it's going to be a very difficult fire to fight." Campbell's home is surrounded by defensible space. He planned to stay and sprinkle his home, but the power went out. "I didn't have a choice (about leaving) at that point," he said. "The hardest part about this is I know that some of my neighbors have lost their homes. I might have too." Hoffman said the fire apparently started near the bottom of the drainage and spread immediately, driven by gusting winds. "At this point, we don't know how it started," he said. "Obviously, we have had no lightning. It took off too hard and too fast for anyone to investigate that at this point."
McKay said he's been in the Bitterroot for seven seasons and has "never seen a fire take off and burn so quick." "It's a combination of terrain and fuels and the winds we have had today" he said. "The fire guys are up against it. Today they are really being put to the test." The speed meant the initial attack team had no chance of catching up. "By the first call, it was already ripping," McKay said. "It got on the face with some wind behind it and then there were 200-foot-flame lengths with fire crowning in the trees all way up the face. It was incredible." A Type 1 team is expected to take over management of the firefighting effort Monday. The weather will offer little relief. Although winds are expected to calm on Monday, the National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for the Bitterroot and West and East Lolo districts Tuesday that predicts westerly winds gusting as high as 45 mph in the afternoon and evening. Humidity will remain low, at 10 to 15 percent for lower elevations and 17 to 22 percent at high elevations. "This is a bad one," McKay said. "We already have put every resource that we have on the fire and everything that we can order, we've ordered." The last estimate put the fire at 1,000 acres, but McKay said it's hard to know for sure due to the amount of smoke being generated by the blaze. Hoffman said there have been a couple of ambulance calls, with one for a person needing CPR in the Owens Creek area. Hoffman said the community has had an "incredibly good response" from valley volunteer fire departments and law enforcement from as far away as Missoula. A portion of Highway 93 south of Hamilton has been closed to traffic. Hoffman said people living near the fire need to be prepared. "Evacuation notices are changing by the minute as this fire spreads," he said. The Ravalli County Sheriff's Office has put in place Stage 2 evacuations for the west side of Highway 93 from Owings Creek to Hayes Creek. That includes all of Roaring Lion Road, Lupine Ridge Trail, 2 Horse Lane, Highland Drive, North Gold Creek Loop, Owings Creek south to Roaring Lion Road, and Gold Creek Loop to Camas Creek Loop. Stage 1 notifications were added from Owings Creek to Westside Road west of Wyant Lane. Stage 1 alerts homeowners that there is a high probability that they may need to evacuate. At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the Stage 1 alert was expanded to include both sides of Lost Horse Road. "It's horrible," said Pamela Caughey, a Hamilton artist who lives on Roaring Lion Road. She had evacuated and was heading toward Highway 93 Sunday afternoon. By Sunday night, she had posted on Facebook: "Our house and many others now just ashes, but we are thankful for our lives and how helpful and kind all have been." She estimated in an interview Sunday afteroon that there are about 50 homes along the 4 miles of Roaring Lion Road. "When a fire gets going, it's just going to go," Caughey said. "We could see it coming so fast." "This is the one we didn't want to happen," said Bitterroot National Forest public affairs officer Tod McKay. "We've got all our resources on it." As of Sunday night, there were three Hot Shot crews, two engine crews from Darby, and a hand crew from Sula already working on the fire. They were supported by five helicopters and one heavy air tanker that made multiple retardant drops. McKay said plans called for local volunteer firefighters to patrol through the night in an effort to protect as many homes as possible. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality reported late Sunday afternoon that smoke from the fire was lifting above Hamilton and that air quality was good.