(UPDATE, 5:00 pm) Helena Fire Chief Jon Campbell says crews are now shifting to mop-up operations, after an afternoon of aggressive firefighting efforts on a wildfire that burned across the north face of Mount Helena.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. There have been no injuries reported.
The fire began just after noon on Sunday and spread quickly in windy conditions. It put up a plume of smoke that was visible across much of the Helena area.
“We were downtown having lunch,” said Kent Barnes, who lives on LeGrande Cannon Boulevard, near where the fire began. “We came out of there, saw all the smoke and thought, ‘Boy, that’s right near home, we should head home.’”
Campbell told MTN no homes were immediately threatened. He said the fire likely started around the area of LeGrande Cannon and Henderson Street.
Authorities conducted extensive aerial operations, with large air tankers dropping fire retardant and helicopters dropping water. However, those operations were delayed because of an unauthorized drone flying in the area. The Helena Police Department reported the operator of that drone was identified and the drone impounded.
Officials are once again urging the public to keep their drones away from active fire areas.
“Any civilian operation of a drone completely ceases all aircraft firefighting efforts, so it’s a big deal that people don’t do that,” said Campbell.
Campbell said the U.S. Forest Service sent a 20-person hand crew onto the mountain. In addition, agencies including Montana DNRC, West Valley Fire Rescue, East Valley Volunteer Fire Department, Montana City Volunteer Fire Department and the Lewis & Clark County Sheriff’s Office assisted the Helena Fire Department.
Barnes said residents in the nearby neighborhoods were grateful for the quick response.
“They’re doing their job, and they’re doing it very well,” he said.
The city of Helena closed all trails into Mount Helena Park. Campbell said they’re asking people to stay out for at least a full day for safety reasons.
“Just in case hotspots, flare-ups, wind changes or things along those lines occur, we don’t want any civilians in a compromised position,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous if fire conditions change.”
Campbell says the fire burned in areas where Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands has done significant work to reduce wildfire fuels in recent years.
“The ability to contain and effectively battle this fire is directly correlated to the fuel mitigation efforts that have taken place in the previous years,” he said.
He asked people to remain vigilant about fires.
“It’s getting hot, dry, windy,” he said. “I know the nights are cooling down, but we are in the midst of fire season as we speak, and it’s unlikely that this will be the last we see of fires before the snow flies.”
(UPDATE, 4:05 pm) A civilian drone in the vicinity temporarily halted air attack operations for crews battling the Mount Helena Fire on Sunday. Helena police were able to find the drone operator and stop them from interfering with firefighting efforts.
"The Helena Police Department has confirmed that the civilian drone operator was found, and the drone is in police custody. Air attacks on the Mt. Helena fire were halted for a short time due to interference from the drone, but resumed once it was taken down," said the City of Helena in a release.
Helena Fire says at this time no homes are threatened. People should stay out of Mount Helena Park for at least the next 24 hours for safety reasons.
City of Helena Fire Chief Jon Campbell reported that fire crews are transitioning to mop up and will remain on-site throughout the night.
"Many thanks to our partners for their quick action on this fire, including: the U.S. Forest Service, MT Department of Natural Resources, Lewis and Clark Sheriff's Office, West Valley Fire, East Valley Fire, and Montana City Fire. Additional thanks to the dedicated staff of the Helena Fire and Police Departments for their steadfast service to this community," wrote the City of Helena in a release.
The cause of the fire in still under investigation.
(UPDATE, 1:50 pm) The Lewis & Clark County/City of Helena 911 Center says at this time there are no evacuation notices. Spring Meadow Lake has been closed to assist with the fire suppression efforts.
"City Fire Chief Jon Campbell has requested that residents please stay out of the area and let emergency personnel work. All trails on and leading to Mt. Helena park are closed. Additionally, staff requests that people refrain from flying drones in the area to make way for additional aerial firefighting response," the City of Helena said in a newsrelease.
Air tankers have been making drops in the area to help suppress the spread of the fire.
(1st REPORT, 1:01 pm) There is a wildfire burning on Mount Helena, and officials are asking people to avoid the area.
The wildfire is burning on the north side of the mountain.
Several agencies are currently responding to the fire and there is a large firefighter presence at the corner of LeGrande Canyon Boulevard and Henderson Street. A DNRC helicopter can be seen making drops in the area.
It is unclear at this time what the estimated size of the fire is or what caused the ignition.