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Strike teams made up of deputies from Gallatin County and other areas around the state are now working on the 150,000-acre Richard Spring fire in southeastern Montana.

“Most of what they’re doing is evacuations,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer. “It’s just neighbors helping neighbors, the classic Montana mentality.”

The Richard Spring fire was discovered on Sunday, according to Inciweb, a wildfire information service. As of Wednesday, it was burning more than 149,000 acres and had destroyed at least four minor structures, according to the Rosebud County Sheriff’s Office.

Rosebud County Disaster and Emergency Services announced Wednesday morning that more than 180 personnel are on the fire, operating 22 fire engines, 4 helicopters, 3 hand crews and 6 dozers. That’s not including local ranchers and landowners also fighting the fire and building fire lines with their own equipment.

Strike teams are made up of four deputies and a sergeant or supervisor who can be in an area for several days. The teams have mostly been working on doing evacuations, but the Gallatin County strike team also called in and coordinated a helicopter water drop on a hotspot that had started near a home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Springer said.

“They are exceptional at what they do, they run around and they can be firemen, they can be water drop coordinators, they can be evacuating people,” Springer said.

Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, Toole County Sheriff’s Office and a multi-agency Hi-Line strike team are also responding to the fire.

The strike teams are organized by local sheriff’s departments but are called out onto fires or other emergencies by the Montana Sheriff Mutual Aid Program.

Jason Jarrett, the manager of the mutual aid program, said the fire is moving quickly and the weather is prime for dangerous fire activity on Wednesday and throughout the week. On Tuesday, wind spread the fire nearly from Colstrip to Ashland and caused it to jump the Tongue River at least two locations.

“The reason that we have the help from other sheriff’s offices is because we know and respect how fast and how big these (fires) can grow,” Jarrett said. “If we don’t have the help here at the time, it will be too late. We’ll never catch up.”

Eastern Montana fires, especially ones spurred on with wind and burning grass, brush and timber alike like the Richard Spring fire is, grow fast. Jarrett said the strike teams immediately jumped into doing evacuation assistance after arriving on Tuesday.

Evacuations have been ordered for the towns of Ashland and Lame Deer, the St. Labre campus, the Amish community in Rosebud County, the community of Rabbit Town and for people living on North Tongue River Road and U.S Highway 212. Pre-evacuation preparation is underway for people living on Rosebud Creek from Greenleaf Creek to Cherry Creek.

Evacuation shelters are set up in Busby at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, the Multi-Purpose Building in Crow Agency and at the Broadus Elementary School in Broadus. People with horses to evacuate can bring them to the Colstrip Saddle Club and those evacuating in campers can park them at the Moose Lodge in Colstrip.

State Highway 39 is opened to limited travel, but could be shut down on short notice, Jarrett said. U.S. Highway 212 is open to local traffic only. Both highways have visibility heavily impacted by the smoke.

Jarrett urged people in the fire area and around the state to sign up for community or emergency notification systems, as that’s how evacuation recommendations and orders will be shared in many instances, he said. He also urged people to use resources from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, like the wildfire risk and preparedness portal.

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651. 

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