By Amy Beth Hanson ASSOCIATED PRESS
HELENA – A late-season wildfire pushed by strong winds ripped through a tiny central Montana farming town overnight, burning several homes and grain elevators that had stood for more than a century as the state continues to see warm temperatures into December, authorities said.
Officials were assessing the damage in Denton on Thursday morning while crews continued to fight the fire, which burned 22 square miles of prairie and agricultural land.
The fire burned “around 25 structures to include grain elevators and bridges,” the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office posted on social media Thursday morning. “Rural fire agencies are continuing to work to prevent any further spread or damage. This work will continue for several more days.”
About 300 residents of the town were evacuated early Wednesday afternoon when a fire that was started by a downed power line in an adjacent county the night before pushed across the drought-stricken land.
“Unfortunately we lost numerous houses on the Southside of town, but thankfully no one was hurt!” the sheriff’s office posted on Facebook on Wednesday night.
The power outage due to the downed power lines shut off water pumps, leaving the town without water, officials said.
The evacuation order was expected to be lifted at noon Thursday, the sheriff’s office said, but only essential traffic will be allowed in the area. Montana Highway 81 west of Denton was closed because a bridge was destroyed by the fire.
Other fires have been burning in Montana in recent days as gusty winds fanned the flames amid drought and unseasonably warm temperatures.
Areas of Montana east of the Continental Divide have had down-sloping west winds for about a week, the National Weather Service said.
With such winds, the air warms and wind speeds increase as the air moves down the slope of the Rocky Mountains, said Cody Moldan, a meteorologist in Great Falls.
Several areas of the state saw record wind gusts on Wednesday and the town of Jordan in central Montana reached a high temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
Central Montana is among several areas of Montana that are experiencing exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
From Sept. 1 through Nov. 30, Lewistown recorded 1.09 inches of precipitation, which is 3.08 inches below normal for those three months, the weather service said. Meanwhile, the average temperature in November was 7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
Thursday was expected to be the last really warm, windy day, Moldan said. A weak cold front is forecast to move into northern Montana on Friday with a stronger cold front on Saturday afternoon that will bring winds, but also some precipitation, he said.