Bridger Foothills Fire

Burnt trees from the Bridger Foothills fire cover the Bridger Mountain range, some dusted with snow, on Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020. 

Twenty-eight homes and “a lot more other outbuildings” were lost during the Bridger Foothills Fire, said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin.

Gootkin announced the news Tuesday evening at a virtual meeting meant to give an update on fire activity and when people affected by the fire could expect to return to their home. He said he didn’t yet have a number on how many outbuildings were lost.

“There would have been a heck of a lot more than that if it weren’t for our firefighters,” Gootkin said.

He said Bridger Canyon Road remains closed from Boylan Road to Jackson Creek Road.

However, Gootkin said, starting at 10 a.m. Wednesday, residents in that area would be allowed to return to their home permanently. He said those who return should stay at home to avoid blocking law enforcement or fire trucks in the area, especially on Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Gootkin said there are lost homes with propane tanks causing active fires. He said homeowners should not attempt to put those fires out.

“We know that they’re there. We have to allow them to burn out, so don’t even go close to them,” Gootkin said. “Don’t do anything with them.”

Gootkin said fire officials are aware that there are active fires on the mountain. He said people should only call 911 if they have an active emergency and refrain from reporting smoke coming from the mountain.

The smoke had cleared Tuesday, but the fire that erupted over the weekend left its mark.

During a tour led by fire officials earlier in the day, snow-capped peaks overlooked the burn scars caused by the Bridger Foothills fire, which has burned 

more than 11 square miles, including brush, timber and short grass.

On the drive from Jackson Creek Road to near the “M” trailhead, the roads were clear except for fire and law enforcement officials moving from one base to another. Charred areas stood out among chunks of green and brown. Leaves on some trees were spared, while the fire stripped others completely. Snow had accumulated on top of some houses.

Snow and cold weather limited the fire’s spread and intensity, but fire spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan said there is still some fuel for the fire like logs, hay bales and structures. She said the rain was not enough to prevent those things from burning again.

The first frost of the season presents another challenge. She said grass that froze overnight is now dead and would be more “readily consumable” later in the week with expected warmer and drier temperature.

“We have to make sure all those fire edges are good and out,” Leuschen-Lonergan said.

She said firefighters were focused on securing structures and building a line around them in case of another flare up. Leuschen-Lonergan said firefighters are looking for any embers at the edge of a fire and extinguishing them to try prevent that from happening.

She said there is concern of the fire flaring up again in the hills where there’s complicated terrain and dense vegetation. She said firefighters still need to work through those areas.

“There’s a lot of fire edge unsecured still,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. “And we just have to have the time for firefighters to get out there and dig direct hand line.”

Chris Kent and Joy Downer, volunteers with Gallatin Gateway Fire Department, said they’ve been hauling water up from Bozeman for fire engines helping knock out the fire.

Kent said he and Downer had been there the entire weekend, sometimes working until midnight, and that they had seen a lot of fire. He said it was sad because he knows a lot of people who live there.

“The sad thing is the houses we lost — there was nothing we could do,” Kent said. “We were just trying to stay safe ourselves.”

Bridger Canyon Road from Brass Lantern Court to Brackett Creek remains closed. An evacuation order for that area remains in effect.

The “M” and all trailheads in the Bridgers also remain closed.

Park County Sheriff Brad Bichler announced on Facebook that Park County residents who received voluntary evacuation orders can safely return to their homes. He said the sheriff’s office would provide updates on any changes in the coming days.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Corey Lewellen, Bozeman district ranger with the Forest Service, said the extent of the fire made it hard for firefighters to investigate the cause of the fire. Now that the blaze is calmer, he said, officials are “actively investigating” what ignited it.

“And I think here in a few days we’re going to have some better information to share with everybody,” Lewellen said.

A group of organizations that provide services during disasters will hold an event on Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Haynes Pavilion at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds for those impacted by the fire. The event will provide a “one-stop” location where they can meet directly with organizations that can help with recovery.

The list of organizations includes HRDC, the Salvation Army, American Red Cross and the Bozeman School District.

It’s not an event to drop off donations. The county has gathered a list of places and organizations taking donations on its website. The Gallatin City-County Health Department has also put together a list of mental health services for those affected by the fire.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s emergency management and the Custer Gallatin National Forest are also organizing the event.