3,000-acre Pine Crest Fire claims 2 homes, 3 buildings
Despite fears of a 2-day wind event playing havoc on the 3,000 acre Pine Crest Fire, crews reported early Wednesday evening the blaze was 100 percent.
A red flag weather warning issued for Tuesday night through Wednesday night had more than 100 fire crews from local, state and federal agencies bracing for the worst, with forecasted west to northwest winds of 20 to 35 mph and gusts up to 50 mph, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
The Stillwater County Commissioners late Tuesday implemented an open burning ban due to current weather and land conditions and at the requests of area fire chiefs and fire districts. The resolution passing the ban also notes there have been at least 14 wildland fires in the county since the beginning of the year.
Also underway is a multi-agency investigation by Columbus Fire Rescue, the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Land Management into what sparked the blaze.
Damage so far
As of Wednesday, crews had confirmed that in addition to the two homes lost, another two were damaged as well as three buildings, said Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) said Thursday morning that its County Assist Team would be demobilzing and transitioning the incident back to local authorities by noon.
“Running For Their Lives”
The fast-moving wind-driven fire started earlier last Saturday afternoon in the upper portion of the Pine Crest subdivision located between Columbus and Park City.
A mandatory evacuation was ordered quickly for the upper portion of the subdivision with 58 calls going out through the Stillwater County Sheriff’s office Reverse 911 Call system. Approximately 89 homes are located in the entire subdivision.
Pine Crest resident Tammie Mullikin described a nightmarish scene with neighbors “running for their lives” from a fast-moving, wind-driven fire.
Mullikin and her husband Ken live on the lower side of the subdivision that was not evacuated. But Ken went to retrieve their horses from the upper eastern edge of the subdivision, where he was greeted by swirling flames. Mullikin said all the ground-cover is gone, but many trees remain standing in the hardest area hit.
The goal Wednesday for crews was to continue to patrol around structures to search out hot spots and weather-allowing, mop-up up to 200 feet in from the fire’s perimeter.
The evacuation order was lifted Monday morning, allowing “only locals” back in to their homes as fire crews continued to work.
Columbus Fire Rescue, Absarokee fire crews, Park City fire crews, the Sheriff’s Office, DNRC, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service are jointly working on the blaze with a total of 18 engines, three helicopters, two water tenders, one heavy equipment and a total of 126 people.
Low visibility from smoke a factor in fatal crash
A fatal five-vehicle chain reaction accident on I-90 last Saturday afternoon was caused in part by reduced visibility from smoke of the Pine Crest Fire.
Sue Simons, 67, was killed in the pile-up. Simons and her husband Richard were in a small SUV at the time of the accident. Richard Simons was seriously injured as well and both had to be extricated from the vehicle, said Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Joe Hensley.
“Visibility was a factor,” said Hensley, adding that the investigation is still underway.
The accident occurred around 2:50 p.m. and also involved a semi, a Subaru Outback, a Toyota 4Runner and a stretch limousine on the way to Columbus to take kids to prom. The crash took place just across the county line in Yellowstone County.
SCN Reporter Robert Witham was one of the first vehicles behind the crash and described the visibility as near blackout conditions.
Extreme gusting winds Saturday resulted in power lines being knocked down and in Columbus, two large trees being uprooted and crashing down on homes. On Quarry Street, an 80-foot plus pine was uprooted and toppled over, with a large branch piercing the roof.
The severe wind created havoc on several fronts as emergency responders found themselves running in multiple directions. Among the calls were the following:
•A brush fire was reported at the Holmgren Fishing Access at 1:52 p.m.
•A 911 brush fire was reported off Hensley Creek Road at 3:28 p.m. The landowners put out the flames.
•MHP advised a tree was across the Joliet Road at 2:05 p.m.
•Large trees fell on two homes in Columbus.
•At 3:06 p.m., near the time of the fatal accident, all radios went down as well.
•At 3:22 p.m. a vehicle sped past a road block, disregarded three commands to stop by a police officer and weaved between fire vehicles, spinning gravel as it accelerated into the Pine Crest subdivision during the emergency evacuation.
•Power lines were down on Lonesome Pine Road in Park City at 6:50 p.m.