A wind-whipped fire burned through nearly 400 acres of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge Friday.
The fire started in the early afternoon after an unexpected wind pushed flames over a black line that surrounded a burn pile of weeds and branches that had been collected at the refuge over the past year.
“It looked like we had good weather from the spot forecast,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Assistant Fire Management Officer Kevin Beck. “The wind pushed the fire out of our containment.”
The flames burned through 391 acres of timber, cottonwood stands, grasslands and cattails.
Refuge Manager Tom Reed said Monday the fire was completely contained, but it is expected to continue to send up smoke for several days. The area that contains cottonwoods is too dangerous for firefighters to enter at this point.
The refuge no longer has its own fire team or engine. Reed said a team for Great Falls travelled to Stevensville to burn off ditches on Thursday and the burn pile Friday.
Crews from the Bitterroot National Forest and Three Mile Volunteer Fire Department responded Friday. Reed said they did an “outstanding” job in pinching the fire off on the northern end.
“I'm just thankful they caught it and it stayed on the refuge,” he said.
Crews from Darby and Trapper Creek Corps were assisted over the weekend by a nice day of rain on Saturday.
While the fire didn’t have much of an impact on the Ponderosa pine of the refuge, it did claim a large number of old cottonwood trees.
“From an ecological standpoint, the grasslands will come back better than they were,” Reed said. “My main concern is the cottonwoods that were lost along the river and within the pine forest. That’s our biggest loss.”
The portion of the refuge that burned is closed to everyone except archery hunters in the fall.
Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn said his department was called out several times Friday to fires that got away from people.
"Things are already starting to dry out in the valley," Mohn said. "People need to look at the forecast and don't burn if it's calling for wind."
Hamilton volunteer firefighters did a controlled grass burn on the land that is proposed for the new Skalkaho Bend Park Thursday.
"I'm not surprised the fire grew as fast as it did at Lee Metcalf," he said. "That tall dry grass burns really well."