By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The 2021 fire season has kicked off with a bang.
The Robertson Draw Fire has grown exponentially since it sparked just three days ago and, as of June 16, has exploded to 21,000 acres and is blanketing a good portion of northern Wyoming in smoke.
The blaze is consuming sage, timber and grassy areas along the front range of the Beartooth Mountains between Red Lodge, Montana and Clark, Wyoming.
According to InciWeb.gov evacuations and evacuation warnings are in place for multiple areas near the fire. Firefighters are focusing their efforts on structure protection and containment.
Investigators have determined that the fire is human-caused, and was first reported around 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 13.
On Tuesday, June 15, the fire was reported at ten times the size from 24 hours previously, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest drew upon resources including handcrews, engines, helicopters, a rappel crew, and support personnel.
Air tankers continue supporting the incident, and a Type 2 Incident Management Team took command of the fire Wednesday.
An area closure is in place for the region south of Highway 212, east along the Beartooth Front and south to the Wyoming border. Evacuation orders are in place in the area south of Highway 308 from Red Lodge to Highway 72, and east of 72 to the Wyoming border.
All campgrounds, dispersed camping and trailheads from the Lake Fork north to Red Lodge including the dispersed camping area just west of the Lake Fork Road have also been ordered to evacuate.
Jim and Carol Ingram are residents in Clark, Wyoming, who have watched the fire grow from a small 40-acre blaze to its current status. On Wednesday morning, Jim Ingram said the smoke had obscured the foothills just west of their home.
“Yesterday afternoon the fire simply exploded and raced around the northeast corner of the mountains (Mt. Maurice) toward Red Lodge and then northeast toward Bear Creek and Belfry out into the plains,” Ingram said. “That’s a run of 14 miles in one afternoon. Our hope is that the reversal of wind direction will push the fire lines back into already-burned areas where they’ll fizzle out.”
A shelter for evacuees has been set up at the Red Lodge Community Church, and the Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Veteran Memorial Civic Center in Red Lodge.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine, with plenty of notice if we are in any danger,” Ingram said. “Two of our neighbors across the road serve on the Clark fire/EMT team.”
Continued record high temperatures and relative humidity in the single digits yesterday provided a challenging firefighting situation in rugged and inaccessible terrain, according to Forest Service officials.
That extreme fire behavior on Tuesday made it nearly impossible to fight the fire safely on the ground, and the high winds prevented aircraft from fighting the fire with retardant and water drops.
But on Wednesday, humidity increased and temperatures lowered, which makes conditions more favorable for firefighting, officials noted. They expect to see more growth on the South and Eastern portions of the fire, but their priorities remain structure protection, building line around the fire and, as always, firefighter and public safety.
There is a virtual and in-person public meeting planned for June 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Red Lodge, Montana High School. The meeting will be live streamed on the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Facebook page at CusterGallatinNationalForest.