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Updated Saturday, 12:35 p.m.: Fire officials said Saturday morning that the fire was 95% contained. They also revised the size estimate down to 330 acres due to more accurate mapping. It was previously estimated at 350 acres.


THREE FORKS — People started the 330-acre Willow Creek fire burning west of here, officials said at a meeting Friday morning.

David Hamilton, incident commander on the Willow Creek fire, said an investigation by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office revealed that the fire was human-caused. He declined to share more details about how it started.

Despite high, erratic winds on Thursday, the Willow Creek fire did not grow in size that afternoon or overnight. It was initially estimated at 500 acres, but the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation revised the acreage to 350 on Friday morning because of improved mapping. On Saturday, that number changed again to 330 acres.

No injuries were reported Friday morning, and no structures had been lost. There were 54 structures in the fire area, DNRC officials wrote.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte attended the meeting here Friday.

“Most people think the fire season hasn’t really started yet. We’ve had 627 fires already since January,” Gianforte said at Friday’s morning meeting. “I’m just asking all Montanans — for the safety of our communities, for the safety of our firefighters — please be careful.”

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Governor Greg Gianforte, left, walks with Cory Calnan, operations technician for the DNRC County Assist Team, during a visit to a burn scar from the Willow Creek fire outside Three Forks on Friday, June 11, 2021. Officials said humans caused the fire, which has burned 350 acres.

Gianforte and DNRC Director Amanda Kaster also visited a burn scar close to a neighborhood around the south end of the fire.

The fire was 10% contained Friday morning. Cory Calnan, operations technician for the DNRC County Assist Team, said that percentage would likely increase by the end of the day as firefighters worked to secure the fire’s perimeter.

Thursday was a challenging day for firefighters, but the fire did not grow, he said. Crews fought against 40 mph winds and gusts reached beyond 60 mph at times. The fire is in rocky terrain filled with grass, sage and shrubby coniferous trees.

Hand crews on Friday were continuing to “mop up” the burn area, DNRC officials wrote. Mopping up involves gridding burned areas and searching for hot spots to extinguish.

The fire was initially reported to Dillon Dispatch at around 3:40 p.m. on Wednesday. Flames spread rapidly through private land south of Milligan Canyon, releasing a large plume of smoke. Grass, brush and trees on steep, dry hills six miles southwest of Three Forks on the west side of Highway 287 were torched.

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A scar from the Willow Creek fire approaches a home on June 11. Officials said humans caused the fire, which has burned 330 acres.

County resources initially attacked the wildfire but later requested help from the state. A DNRC County Assist Team led by Hamilton and incident command trainee Patrick Lonergan took over management of the fire on Thursday around noon.

By Thursday afternoon, the fire had pushed north, away from a subdivision south of Milligan Canyon. Smoke was barely visible from Highway 287 near Willow Creek. Volunteer fire departments were relieved so they could attack any new starts, said DNRC spokesperson Crystal Beckman.

The fire burned entirely within private land, though it neared some state trust land and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, according to DNRC.

Federal, state and local firefighters from Jefferson County, Gallatin County, Broadwater County, the U.S. Forest Service and DNRC have been battling the blaze.

On Friday, there were 27 federal, 27 state, four local and 60 private personnel working on the fire, according to DNRC. There were four 20-person hand crews, seven fire engines and one helicopter.

No closures or evacuations were in place on Friday morning, but law enforcement had issued pre-evacuation notices to residents along Milligan Canyon Road on Wednesday.

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Cory Calnan, operations technician for the DNRC County Assist Team, briefs officials and community members on the Willow Creek fire outside Three Forks at the Three Forks Area Ambulance Station on Friday, June 11, 2021. Officials said humans caused the fire, which has burned 350 acres.

County, state and federal firefighters who took on the initial attack deserved credit for “nailing (the wildfire) down where it is,” Hamilton said. The County Assist Team will limit risks to firefighters as they mop up the blaze, he said.

Gianforte said his office is committed to providing the resources necessary to get Montanans through this year’s fire season and that the outlook isn’t good.

“We normally burn about 75,000 acres in Montana each year. We’ve already burned 32,000 acres,” he said. “We expect July to be a tough month.”

Gianforte said that if there is an extended fire season, the challenge will be to limit fatigue for firefighters. His administration is focused on actively managing forests in Montana to reduce the threats associated with wildfires, he said.

“With 80% of the fires being man-caused, we’re just asking people to be careful,” Gianforte said.

Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines issued a statement on the Willow Creek fire on Friday.

“It’s devastating to see another fire rip through Montana but I am thankful for the firefighters who are putting in long hours of dangerous work to contain it,” he said. “I will continue to keep an eye on this situation.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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