By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
A fire erupted on Monday night in Clark, claiming the life of one resident — along with two homes — as it rapidly burned across 300 acres near Line Creek.
Dozens of residents on and around Crossfire Trail were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night as the flames were fueled by dry conditions and wind gusts reported to have reached 100 mph.
While officials and residents assume the fire was started by downed electrical lines, Clark Fire Chief Nate Hoffert said Tuesday that the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Large tracts of ground were burned to the stubs, as the fire ignited everything in its path — including outbuildings, automoblies and other home supplies. The flames moved east through the creek, burning through hundreds of trees before jumping into areas of dry sagebrush steppe on the north side of Crossfire Trail. Firefighters spent their time Tuesday on the banks of Line Creek putting out hot spots.
Mid-morning Tuesday, Jarod McCleary and Ashley Hughes were out surveying the damage at their home on Hoot Owl Trail.
“We saw it coming down from the north, then it jumped the creek,” McCleary said. “It was just a line of fire all the way down the creek and we got the hell out here.”
The couple was lucky. Hughes was able to evacuate shortly after 10:30 p.m. — when the fire was reported to the Park County Sheriff’s Office — while McCleary stayed behind to monitor the fire line. The wind was blowing at dangerously high speeds, being violent enough to destroy a small building and other equipment associated with a Park County radio repeater and scatter debris over a broad area.
By midnight, a weather station in the area was logging gusts of at least 75 mph, with sustained winds of 58 mph, according to National Weather Service data. At the time, the temperature remained an unseasonably warm 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Our house was shaking. You could literally watch the windows bowing in and out from the wind,” Hughes said, adding, “It was a bad place to be.”
Soon after Hughes headed to the Clark Pioneer Recreation Center — which was opened to receive evacuees — McCleary saw a line of fire descending on their property, so he also evacuated. When the couple returned home Tuesday, they were shocked to see their house still standing.
“The fire completely surrounded the house — you can see the burned grass — but all we lost was an ATV trailer and some tires,” McCleary said.
Marcella Bodner and her husband Steven Fish live near Line Creek, less than a mile from where the fire started. When they saw the flames heading toward their home, Fish immediately raced to several nearby residences to warn of the encroaching flames.
“He went next door and pounded on the door,” Bodner said. “He didn’t get an answer, so he went to the next house. They were already pulling themselves together. Then he tried to go up to the chalet on the hill, but he couldn’t get through.”
Eventually the couple was forced from their home. They took several vehicles and pets with them to the recreation center, but couldn’t get all the animals.
“We thought we had lost some, but we found them all well this morning,” Bodner said.
She credited volunteers firefighters and those at the recreation center for their fast assistance.
“This is a wonderful community,” she said.
As they battled the blaze, firefighters from Clark were joined by crews from Powell, Cody and Belfry, Montana, who arrived just after 11 p.m. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service firefighters arrived early Tuesday to relieve crews who’d worked through the night, said Hoffert, the leader of the Clark department. Clark officials remained on the scene to search for residents, still trying to locate two other people on Tuesday morning.
“We’re trying to make sure that we have everyone accounted for. Evacuees went in all different directions,” Hoffert said.
Many stayed overnight at the center, in Cody hotels or with friends in Clark. While most homes were spared, others were still smoldering Tuesday morning.