POWELL — 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 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 more than 100 mph.
Clark resident Cindy Ruth died from smoke inhalation in the blaze, according to her death notice. She was the mother of three adult children and wife of Jerry Ruth, a former police officer and currently a volunteer first responder in Clark.
Most officials and residents assume the fire was started by downed electrical lines, with Clark Fire Chief Nate Hoffert saying Tuesday that the cause of the fire was under investigation.
Downed lines were reported to have started other fires in Red Lodge, including a large fire in the Roscoe/West Rosebud area and another in the Roberts/Cooney area. The same area of Line Creek was hit by a fire due to downed electrical lines about a dozen years ago, according to residents.
Melvin and Rose Powell’s home was spared then, but not on Monday.
Rose, 81, fosters cats for the Park County Animal Shelter and the couple gathered as many of their pets as they could. They jumped in their car and headed for safety, “with flames coming in the window,” Rose said.
Everything left behind — from their phones, clothes and a lifetime of memories — was lost in the fire. Even their fire-proof safe melted.
“It was so hot my canning jars had melted into a river of glass, collecting things as it flowed,” Rose Powell said.
The couple was still in shock, but made it to the Clark Pioneer Community Center Tuesday night for a free survivor’s meal. It wasn’t until she was met with kindness from the community that Rose broke down.
“I hadn’t cried or showed much emotion,” she said. “But there was one lady there ... that had given me the biggest hugs.”
The couple fears three of their cats died in the fire, but are still hoping they escaped to the creek. They saved their dog, a Pomerainian named Two Bits, and two of their cats, Jack and Socks.
Large tracts of ground were burned to the stubs, as the fire ignited everything in its path — including outbuildings, automobiles 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 were still on hand Tuesday on Line Creek putting out hot spots in the thick brush.
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 called in to the Park County Sheriff’s Office — while McCleary stayed behind to monitor the fire line.
The wind was blowing at dangerously high speeds, violent enough to destroy a small building and other equipment associated with a Park County radio repeater and scatter debris over a broad area.
Clark resident Ken Dodge reported recording wind speeds up to 124 mph Monday night, while the temperatures remained in the mid-60s past midnight.
“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.
Crews from Powell, Cody and Belfry, Montana, all joined their Clark counterparts in fighting the blaze, arriving just after 11 p.m.
Powell Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dustin Dicks said he doesn’t doubt the reports of 120 mph gusts.
“The wind was crazy,” he said in a Wednesday morning interview.
The Powell crews worked to protect structures, but the wind pushed the fire so fast it was almost impossible to control, Dicks said; the flames laid waste to everything in its path down to the dirt.
“I’ve never seen sagebrush burn like that,” Dicks said. “Usually there’s some traces [of the plants] left after the fire. But the fire was so hot and fast it burned the sagebrush down to nothing.”
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.
“We’re trying to make sure that we have everyone accounted for,” Hoffert said Tuesday morning. “Evacuees went in all different directions.”
Many stayed overnight at the recreation center, at the fire station, in Cody hotels or with friends in Clark.
Through the efforts of the firefighters, most of their homes were spared. When Hughes and McCleary 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 volunteer firefighters and those at the recreation center for their fast assistance.
“This is a wonderful community,” she said.