Rain, Cold Slow Pace of Fires

Sunday, September 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A few days of rain have helped to slow the spread of wildfires burning on hundreds of thousands of acres across the Northern Rockies.

``These are probably the best conditions we've had since this fire started,'' said Dan Kincaid, a fire information officer for a 81,000-acre fire near Townsend. ``I think it will allow (firefighters) to make pretty good progress this weekend.''

Showers and thunderstorms had dropped as much half an inch of rain on parts of Montana by Saturday and an inch or more elsewhere. Highs only reached into the 70s, humidity was low and rain was forecast through Wednesday.

``It cooled things down. It cooled the fires down, the air down. It took a lot of the smoke out. It made things so much more bearable for the crews,'' said J.D. Coleman, information officer at the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.

Firefighters in Wyoming awoke to freezing temperatures Saturday morning. The damp, cold conditions allowed commanders in the state to start sending crews home or to other fires, and some restrictions were lifted in Yellowstone National Park.

Showers also slowed the spread of some of Idaho's 24 major fires. The state's largest blaze, at 200,000 acres near Salmon, had not expanded since Thursday — the first time the blaze hasn't grown since it started in mid-July.

In Montana, fire officials still cautioned that many of the 27 blazes burning on more than 658,200 acres there were not yet contained and could still jump fire lines if the weather changes.

Lightning accompanying some of Friday's showers also ignited new fires.

While the wet weather has helped in the northern Rockies, more than 200 new fires were reported Friday in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, an area that has been suffering through triple-digit temperatures and drought conditions for weeks.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, counted 68 major fires burning across the country Saturday on 1.7 million acres. So far this year, more than 74,000 fires blackened nearly 6.5 million acres.

In Montana, Coleman said crews were relieved to have cool weather but weren't naive enough to believe it would halt advancing flames for good.

``The fire dragon sort of retreated into its lair for a bit,'' he said, ``but it's not gone.''