LANDUSKY — Sitting under a tent Friday morning and eating a hot breakfast on a picnic table, the crew of firefighters from Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge focused on their food and said very little.
A couple of them were coming off a 25-hour shift.
The July Fire had flared up to an estimated 8,381 acres by Friday morning, threatening the small community of Landusky where it burned one outbuilding. To stop its spread near the town, the firefighters from the wildlife refuge, along with other crews, lit a backburn late Thursday along the mountainside just east of Landusky.
The controlled burn swept up the hillside, and by early morning Friday it had stopped the main fire from burning any lower.
By late Friday afternoon, crews were still battling the blaze north and east of Landusky, but the town itself sat quiet and relatively safe. All residents had elected to leave after the flare-up late Thursday afternoon.
"Definitely the biggest fire I've been on," said Christopher Pickering, one of the firefighters from the wildlife refuge.
Members of the crew from the wildlife refuge had joined the fire Thursday morning. As more crews arrived through the day, they were assigned night duty and worked through the dark Thursday until their shift ended shortly after 7 a.m. on Friday.
"We'll sleep today and be back at it tonight," said firefighter Stephen Warren.
Friday morning the Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter at Hays-Lodgepole High School in Hays for Landusky residents. Hays sits on the northern side of the Little Rocky Mountains across from Landusky, which is on the southeast. By Friday afternoon, no one had checked into the Red Cross shelter.
The fire started Monday afternoon, and into Tuesday easterly winds pushed the fire toward the small community of Zortman, which sits on the northeastern side of the Little Rocky Mountains. By Wednesday and into Thursday, a shift in the winds pushed the fire in the opposite direction, away from Zortman and toward Landusky.
Those winds on Thursday blew embers and burning debris across the western face of the mountains just above Landusky, creating spot fires that expanded the western perimeter of the fire.
A big reason buildings in Landusky survived Thursday's flames was "the work that the community did to firewise the property," said Hailey Graf, a press information officer with the Northern Rockies Incident Management team. "It really facilitated the success of the fire operation."
The fire grew so fast Thursday, officials are still unsure exactly how large it is. A planned flight in the dark with infrared cameras to map the fire's perimeter was scrapped at the last minute when technical issues arose with the scanning equipment. With the fire's rapid expansion on Thursday, its containment was lowered to under 10 percent.
Officials are also waiting to give an exact number of crews on the fire. Officially the count is at 189 people, but teams were arriving hourly all through the day Friday.
"They're starting to arrive in a big way," said Graf.
Officials expect to have an accurate count on crews battling the fire, its containment and the size of the blaze by Saturday morning.
While the July Fire burns between Zortman and Landusky, fire officials Friday began talking to residents of Hays and encouraging them to create defensible space around their property and to gather important items in case the fire shifts north and the sheriff's office issues an evacuation order.
It's a worst case scenario plan, Graf said.
"We're planning for the hypothetical of the fire reaching Hays," she said. "We've got the ball rolling for should the worst happen."
Right now nearly 10 miles of mountain ridges separate Hays from the northwestern perimeter of the fire.
For the first time, fire officials are requiring water tenders and tank trucks from outside the area to undergo decontamination to avoid the spread of tiger mussels, an aquatic invasive species.
Water tanks and equipment outside the region are washed in hot water or a chemical bath before they're filled with water and sent to the fire.
"We're the first group to try out those standards," Graf said.
It's an important move as the communities in the region work to stop the spread of tiger mussels, small freshwater creatures that collect and plug up water and irrigation lines and damage lake and river ecosystems.
"You never know where (outside) equipment has last drawn water," Graf said.