BILLINGS, Mont. —Firefighters facing high winds and triple-digit temperatures in central and southeastern Montana confronted several new blazes Tuesday as they struggled to contain fires that already have burned hundreds of square miles.
A fire estimated at more than 100 acres was burning through the Clapper Flat subdivision of several hundred homes north of Laurel. Some structures were burned, but Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said they did not include any homes.
Helicopters and air tankers were making continual drops over the fire to keep it away from houses, said Paula Short with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. But strong winds were pushing the flames through a mix of grass and timber, making the fire difficult to contain, Short said.
Two more new fires were reported south of Ashland near the Wyoming border, as temperatures exceeding 100 degrees set in ahead of a front passing through the region Tuesday evening.
That dangerous shift in the weather was expected to pack wind gusts up to 45 mph, said National Weather Service forecaster Todd Chambers.
The red flag conditions could cause problems for firefighters battling the 320-square-mile Ash Creek Fire, which jumped U.S. Highway 212 and triggered evacuations between Broadus and Ashland.
"It's running so fast that we may not be able to get ahead of it at this point," said fire information officer Bernie Pineda. "We are fighting fire in about every direction."
Broadus residents received early notice Tuesday that they could be told to evacuate, said Powder River emergency services director Rebecca McEuen. The rural agricultural community of about 450 people is 18 to 20 miles from the leading edge of fire, she said.
Officials estimated the fire was 55 percent contained after burning 16 residences and 22 outbuildings.
More homes were threatened, even as some firefighters were diverted to respond to two new fires about 30 miles to the south, along Indian and Taylor creeks.
Fire information officer Pat McKelvey said Tuesday those fires were at least 100 acres combined. McEuen said the area has at least one ranch but is sparsely populated.
The change in weather was preceded by dry winds out of the southwest that lowered humidity levels and made the landscape more fire-prone. Gusting winds from the northwest were expected were expected by evening, which could cause fires to abruptly shift directions, Chambers said.
"The combination makes for some dangerous fire conditions," he said. "They're fighting it from one direction then the wind shifts and they have to get out of the way."
The most active part of the fire was burning thick, largely inaccessible timber on the Custer National Forest. That led firefighters to steer clear of the dangerous forward edge of the blaze, said fire information officer Kathy Bushnell.
But Bushnell said the fire could soon break through the eastern edge of the forest and reach private lands covered with grasses, which don't burn as hot as the ponderosa pines in the forest. That could allow firefighters to tackle the fire more directly, she said.
Also bracing for stiff winds were firefighters working the Horse Creek fire south of Hysham. The 6,100-acre fire ignited Sunday and quickly spread through sparsely populated areas, threatening a natural gas pipeline and a pair of 500-kilovolt transmission lines owned by NorthWestern Energy.
New fires are also a worry. Chambers said 1,000 lightning strikes were reported over south-central and southeastern Montana overnight Tuesday. While many came in areas that were also doused with rain, some may have sparked fires that could quickly grow with the forecast winds.
On the eve of the July Fourth holiday, all or parts of two dozen Montana counties are under some kind of fire restriction.
Most have imposed Stage I restrictions, which prohibit campfires, charcoal grills and smoking outside of a building or vehicle. All or parts of eight counties are under Stage II restrictions, which also limits the use of engine-powered equipment, explosives and firearms.
In addition to the fire restrictions, state officials estimate that about a dozen counties in extremely hazardous areas have banned private citizens from using fireworks as long as the fire danger exists. But there has been no word of cancellations for any of the major public fireworks displays scheduled across the state.
Jeff Douglass, a fireworks stand owner in East Helena and an instructor at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, had been advocating to lift the restrictions until he learned that the county is at 26 percent of average rainfall levels and that red-flag conditions were expected in the area.
"I heard the report and it was worse than I thought. I can't in good conscience say we should still have fireworks," Douglass told the Independent Record.
So far in 2012, more than 300 fires have burned a combined 335,000 acres across Montana. That's more than 500 square miles.
The cost to date for fighting the fires tops $12.4 million.
The weather service says red-flag conditions are also expected for southwestern Montana.
But cooler weather early in the week allowed firefighters to make significant gains on several fires.
Authorities say the 22,000-acre Dahl fire in Musselshell County is 95 percent contained after burning 73 homes and 150 other buildings.
Progress was also made on the 4,800 Pony fire west of Norris, reported to be 45 percent contained, and the 3,100-acre Bad Horse fire near Crow Agency, at 70 percent contained.
The Coal Seam fire near Busby, Hawk Creek fire near Musselshell and Antelope Lane fire near Whitehall were all fully contained, officials said.