South Moccasin Fire burns 12,000 acres

By 
Katherine Sears
Managing Editor
Friday, October 8, 2021
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The southwest area of the South Moccasin Mountains is engulfed in flames on Tuesday evening as crews conduct strategic burns between constructed fireline and the main fire. Photos by Katherine Sears

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Looking west from Rocky Butte on the northeast side of the South Moccasin Mountains, the timber is blackened as far as one can see.

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A small conifer stands completely burned on top of Rocky Butte after the South Moccasin Fire blew through the island mountain range early this week. Two communication towers sit on a peak to the southwest. Three towers incurred damage during the fire.

The South Moccasin Fire that was discovered around 12:45 p.m. on Monday northwest of Lewistown burned an estimated 12,743 acres and is now considered 80% contained as of Friday.
The fire engulfed most of the South Moccasin range just as quickly as it started, leaving nothing but charred timber, ash, and black hillsides seen from every direction. The incident was highly visible from town throughout the week as air support worked during daytime hours to save structures and suppress the fire.
Severe drought conditions allowed the fire to burn hot and fast through heavy timber, mostly on private land. The heavy fuel resulted in the intense smoke clouds seen for miles.
“Any fire that burns that hot in timber is going to create a lot of smoke,” said DNRC Public Information Officer Alex Schwier. “Because it was a blue sky, sunny day, and there was no inversion to stop the smoke, people saw that large plume.”
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation County Assist Team assumed command of the fire on Tuesday after working alongside volunteer departments, Fergus County, and federal agencies. The fire was in the Moore Fire District, and the Moore Fire Department worked closely with DNRC to suppress the fire, according to a DNRC press release.

According to the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office, five structures were burned in the fire, none of which were primary residences. Three communication towers were damaged, and some services were down temporarily.
“Three towers were damaged, but not too bad,” Fergus County Undersheriff Tracy Lewelllen told the News-Argus on Thursday. “Fergus Electric got in there yesterday and today and got things up and running.”
While there is much speculation over the cause of the fire, Lewellen said the incident is still under investigation and the cause is still undetermined.
Lewellen said sheriff’s personnel from Rosebud, Richland, and Gallatin counties aided throughout the fire.
“We appreciate everyone who assisted, donated, and helped out with the fire,” said Lewellen.
On Tuesday evening, crews conducted strategic burns on the southwest and southeast side of the fire, which included burning fuels between constructed dozer lines and the main fire.
These burns are conducted to remove fuel and vegetation that would otherwise allow the main fire to progress.
Local residents likely witnessed heightened fire activity around dusk on Tuesday due to the strategic burns. Overnight and into Wednesday, the fire pushed northwest and west, and crews constructed additional containment lines to suppress the fire’s growth.
Schwier said at the fire’s height on Tuesday, six fixed-wing aircrafts and two helicopters were assigned to the fire. Among the aircrafts was a DC-10 air tanker, a converted passenger jetliner capable of carrying up to 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.
“Air support is dispatched dependent on the fire, its current activity, and how helpful certain aircraft would be in certain instances,” said Schwier.
On Tuesday, the fire became the highest priority wildfire in the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group territory, which meant firefighting resources released from other fires were sent to Lewistown.
Also on standby at the Lewistown Airport were two privately-owned “Super Scoopers,” which are aircraft capable of accumulating 1,600 gallons of water in its belly. The owner of Bridger Aerospace in Bozeman donated the time, personnel, and equipment to help fight the fire if needed.  
With the arrival of rain on Wednesday, and the fact there is little fuel left to burn, DNRC plans to turn command back over to local resources on Saturday at 2 p.m., with full containment expected by Sunday.
As of Friday, crews were continuing mop up of hot spots along the fire’s southern edge, as the majority of suppression and repair was complete along the east side of the fire. Crews are also working to remove dangerous dead, standing trees along Tower Road.

Donations

The DNRC is not accepting donations, and urges those wishing to volunteer time or
money to contact local volunteer fire departments, or donate through Stockman Bank.
Money is going through the Montana Winter Fair account.
Cash and checks be made to Montana Winter Fair with “South Moccasin Fire” in the memo line.
Donate online at montanawinterfair.com/fire.
Donations will go toward fire relief, including equipment repairs.

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