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Updated 9:13 a.m. Friday: Fire officials have revised the size estimate for the Willow Creek fire down to 350 acres due to better mapping, according to a Friday morning update. It had previously been estimated at 500 acres.

The update also said the fire is 10% contained, meaning fire line has been built along 10% of the fire's perimeter.

There are 126 people working the fire, including four 20-person hand crews. Seven engines are assigned to the fire. 


THREE FORKS — A wildfire that started southwest of here Wednesday afternoon had torched approximately 350 acres of grass, brush and trees by Thursday evening, when winds started picking up, according to state officials.

Officials had not confirmed the cause of the fire by Thursday afternoon, though the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, said Crystal Beckman, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation County Assist Team.

The wildfire burned private land, but it was near state land and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Beckman said.

Smoke could be seen Thursday morning rising above dry, brushy hills south of Milligan Canyon on the south end of Jefferson County. The wisps blended in with clouds that rolled into the Three Forks area around noon.

Gusty, erratic winds blew the wisps of smoke northward, deeper into remote hills and away from a subdivision near Highway 2 around Willow Creek. Even with the weather, however, officials said Thursday afternoon the fire was not growing in size.

A private firefighting crew could be seen around 1:30 p.m. gathering near steep, blackened hills at the south end of the fire.

Most firefighters were working at the northern flank of the Willow Creek fire on Thursday, as the south end appeared to be more secure, Beckman said.

Firefighting crews from Jefferson County, Gallatin County and Broadwater County responded to the Willow Creek fire around 3:40 p.m. Wednesday after it was reported to Dillon dispatch.

The flames could be seen spreading Wednesday through hills near Highway 2 past Lewis and Clark Caverns. The fire emitted a large plume of smoke that could be spotted past Three Forks along Interstate 90.

The fire raced up steep terrain, which made a ground response challenging in some areas, according to a Wednesday news release.

Four DNRC helicopters carried buckets of water to the fire on Wednesday as nightfall approached. The plume began to settle when temperatures cooled later in the evening.

Jefferson County law enforcement put some residents in the area on notice, according to a Wednesday news release. There were no injuries related to the fire on Thursday, Beckman said. No structures had burned.

The DNRC County Assist Team arrived near Three Forks after Jefferson County requested state assistance on Wednesday.

The incident management team provides logistical support for local firefighting crews. It took on management of the fire on Thursday, relieving volunteer firefighting crews so they could prepare for new starts, Beckman said.

Two of the four DNRC helicopters continued responding to the Willow Creek fire Thursday, but they were sent back to Helena later in the day because of high winds, according to Tim Crosmer, a safety officer for the DNRC County Assist Team.

A spot forecast from the National Weather Service indicated that thunderstorms could hit the area Thursday Showers were possible overnight.

Friday will likely be mostly sunny, then cloudy around the area of the fire, Crosmer said. Winds were expected to calm at that point.

June 9 is an early date for the County Assist Team to be responding to a request for assistance on a wildfire, Beckman said. Usually the team stays on call from June 15 to Sept. 15.

“This is the first fire in Montana that has gone beyond an initial attack this year,” she said.

Beckman said it’s important for people to be wary of starting fires as they travel on roadsides and when they are out doing yard work. They should pay attention to red flag warnings and be extra cautious on those days.

“The safest way to keep firefighters safe is to not start wildfires,” she said. That way, “firefighters can respond to natural fires instead of going to human-caused fires.”

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