IMAGE: Mina Cox
David Grubbs  /  AP file
Mina Cox walks through the remains of her burned-out home Friday near the Stillwater River and Absarokee, Mont. The Derby fire ripped through the area and burned Cox's home but left the guest house at left untouched.
updated 9/4/2006 10:09:55 PM ET 2006-09-05T02:09:55

An enormous wildfire that has prompted the evacuation of hundreds of people continued to spread Monday, though winds didn't kick up as much as firefighters had feared, a Forest Service official said.

"We're still working on this thing on all fronts," said Dixie Dees, a fire information officer.

The fire, in south-central Montana, has burned 26 homes and is classified as the nation's No. 1 firefighting priority.

It has spread across 180,000 acres, or more than 280 square miles, since lightning sparked it on Aug. 22. It was only about 20 percent contained, authorities said.

The fire is not following the typical pattern: growing more active in the afternoon, then calming as darkness falls, Dies said.

"We'll probably have an active fire until midnight or so before it quiets down," she said.

About 265 homes were evacuated in just a few hours Sunday night on the western flank of the fast-moving blaze, said Kelly O'Connell, Sweetgrass County disaster and emergency services coordinator.

Fire officials feared that wind and higher temperatures this week would create extreme fire conditions.

The fire was spreading on its southwest side Monday, fire information officer Char Fuller said. Crews were trying to protect buildings, particularly along the western flank.

"They're trying to do operations to protect those structures, but they're not making any guarantees," O'Connell said. "They're just working as hard as they can."

About 770 firefighters and support personnel are working the blaze, on the ground and with helicopters and heavy air tankers. Fire officials have ordered more people and equipment to help fight the fire in anticipation of a difficult week.

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