Federal officials offered assurances to 150 West Yellowstone citizens Wednesday that their town would not be overrun by fire, but some nervous residents - who watched the fire jump a 60-yard wide river Tuesday - prepared to leave.
The North Fork fire in adjacent Yellowstone National Park moved to within 23/4 miles of town Tuesday, fire information officer Nancy Good told a town meeting Wednesday morning."Mostly it moved north. We are estimating that it covered 2,000 acres yesterday," she said.
North Fork fire commander Dave Poncin told the meeting that the fire will reach town only if there is a major wind shift caused by a lightning storm or a cold front with "squirrely winds." He said that "no long-range major weather event" with winds that would push the fire to town has been predicted by weather experts.
But some local residents are taking precautions, clearing combustible material from near their homes, hooking up their garden hoses and packing valuables.
Accountant Rick Keller said he was packing important office equipment "so I can back up to the door and load it if necessary."
Deli owner Barb Listman said, "It's very much in my mind what I will take with me. I'm thinking about it - my dogs and my birds will be first."
Their fears followed the fire's unexpected break across firebreaks and the Madison River on Tuesday.
"It showed me first-hand how useless a fire line is when there is wind," said Paul Ciperski, a tourist from Utah. "All we could do was stand there and feel helpless."
Firefighters ran into the Madison River with their shovels, some crossing with small rafts, to battle fires that broke out when 20 mph winds blew burning fragments of trees across 60 yards of river.
Shortly after the line fell apart around 3 p.m., park rangers asked all motorists in the Madison area to leave the park, and the west entrance was closed until 6:30 p.m.
Gallatin County Sheriff Ron Cutting said that the county has an evacuation plan if West Yellowstone is hit.