By LINDA HALSTEAD-ACHARYA AND BECKY SHAY
Of The Gazette Staff
Smoke from a lightning-caused fire near Reed Point was still thick this morning on Interstate 90 where traffic has been reduced to one lane each way.
The Montana Department of Transportation reported at 8 a.m. that motorists should expect delays from the Reed Point Interchange to four miles east of the tiny Stillwater County town.
Speed has been reduced to 45 mph. DOT warned that the interstate may be closed at any time if fire conditions warrant.
A storm with dry lightning and high winds ignited the fire about 4 p.m. It was estimated at about 800 acres Wednesday night and temporarily closed I-90 Wednesday evening.
Julie Pratton was in her house across from the Reed Point Elementary School when lighting struck shortly before 4 p.m.
I heard it hit – it sounded like a sonic boom, she said.
Almost instantaneously, a tree was in flames.
Officials planned to fly over the blaze today to get a more accurate measurement of its size. Six rural fire departments, two helicopters and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation were fighting the fire, according to Karen Tyra, a spokeswoman for Stillwater County.
The rainless storm passed over Reed Point just before 4 p.m., Pratton said, igniting the top of a timbered ridge just southwest of town and south of Interstate 90.
Cleo Purdum, who lives just off the exit at Reed Point, said she heard a rumble, then smelled smoke. At first she didn’t know where it was coming from.
Then it turned black, she said.
Neighbors took quick action, moving about 30 head of cattle out of the fire’s path. By 5:30 p.m. the blaze had swept to the east, engulfing ponderosa pines in bursts of flame. By 6 p.m., a spot fire had jumped the road, prompting officials to shut Interstate 90.
Officers had one lane reopened in each direction by 8:30 p.m. Heavy smoke cut visibility to around 100 yards in places, and traffic was moving about 35 mph, according to the Montana Highway Patrol.
Joan and Bill Langford, longtime Reed Point residents both in their 80s, showed up at Pratton’s Reed Point Sinclair. Sue Jensen, Pratton’s sister was relieved. She had seen the fire jump the road in the vicinity of the Langfords’ house and was glad to see them safe and sound.
We were worried sick about you, she told the couple.
The Langfords hadn’t shown up sooner because they were watering their property as fast as they could.
I started (watering) when I saw the fire, Joan said. That’s all I had – hoses – but I had two pumps.
The fire had dropped into their yard, threatened their pasture and was moving toward the hayfield. Luckily, their sheep had been moved down by the river just before the fire started. When the Langfords dashed to the Sinclair to get drinks for the volunteers, Joan said she thought they had the grass fires contained.
We’re OK – the house is OK, thank God, she said.
Moments later, the call came across the radios: structure fire.
The Langfords’ shop was ablaze, sending plumes of smoke eastward.
Upwind, a barn and outbuildings didn’t appear to be threatened.
But two gas tanks stood only yards from the shop, and the Langfords’ house was situated precariously downwind. In the background, a helicopter disappeared into a thick brown cloud as it continued making water runs from the river to the hills.
They’ve lived here for years and years, Pratton said.
We’re all family here, she said. If it affects one of us, it affects us all.
As the shop fire seemed to play itself out, Pratton turned her car around to head back to the Reed Point Sinclair. With firemen in town, she knew she’d be busy.
We’re probably going to have to be here through the night, she said.
We’re going to be open for emergency crews, Jensen added. Things are going to be happening all night, for sure.
Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey said it didn’t take much to spark the blaze.
We haven’t had much lightning, Davey said. We had a little bit today and that’s what we got.
The commissioners on Wednesday afternoon declared an emergency because of the extreme fire danger and the Whistle Creek fire. That will make the county eligible for state disaster money.
Stillwater County has committed all available resources, taken all possible action to combat and alleviate the situation and local resources may not be adequate to cope with the situation, the resolution stated. An emergency is hereby declared because expenditures may be beyond the financial capability of the county.
Fire crews from Reed Point, Columbus, Park City, Absarokee and Rapelje fought the fire, Tyre said. Big Timber Fire Department attacked from the west side of the blaze, she said. The helicopters, one from the Gallatin National Forest and one from the Department of State Lands in Helena, had to quit working as the sun set.