Changing Weather Thwarting Fires

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Firefighters finally getting a break from the heat and high winds fueling wildfires across Montana have another dilemma — dwindling supplies, from fire-retardant clothing to water hoses.

Supply centers in Billings and Missoula reported inventories down dramatically this week as 28 large fires engulf 637,000 acres across the state.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., led a delegation Thursday to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to press for faster delivery of firefighting supplies.

``We delivered the message to center officials that we need to get resources as quickly as possible to put fires out because Montanans' lives are at stake and their homes and businesses are threatened,'' he said. ``My goal was to cut through the red tape to get the radios, communications planes and personal protective gear without jumping through hoops.''

Since late July, wildfires have burned more than 716,000 acres in Montana at a cost of $142 million. Earlier this week, President Clinton declared the state a disaster area. Idaho might be next, with 26 fires burning on 722,000 acres.

An additional 500 Marines from Camp LeJeune, N.C., were expected in Idaho on Friday, adding to the thousands of military and National Guard troops already on fire duty. Forty-one Canadian firefighters arrived there Thursday to join the effort.

One of that state's largest blazes, at Clear Creek, topped 200,000 acres Thursday but was nearly 50 percent contained after the fire ran largely unchecked through central Idaho, officials said.

Nationally, 77 fires are spread over 1.6 million acres, mostly in western states, with Montana and Idaho the hardest hit.

On Thursday, fire managers said there were no major flare-ups and they were hoping forecasts of cooler temperatures and rain through the weekend prove accurate.

Cloudy conditions with scattered showers and thunderstorms beginning Friday and continuing through the weekend were forecast for southwestern Montana, where giant fires are burning in the Bitterroot Valley. Storm-related winds, however, could present problems, fire officials said.

James Chapman, manager of the Billings Interagency Fire Dispatch Center, told The Billings Gazette that a crew could not be sent to fire lines recently because firefighter pants and shirts were not available.

Other shortages reported included sleeping bags, pumps, water tanks, water hose and repair parts, tents, chain saws and hand tools. Used equipment was being recycled as quickly as possible, officials said.

In Washington, Clinton said Thursday an additional $90 million was being released to ensure ``that the federal firefighters have the resources they need.

``Now a total of $590 million has been spent on emergency funding to combat these fires,'' he said, noting that this has been one of the worst wildfire seasons in the nation's history.

Not all the fire problems were in the West. A 2,000-acre fire in Arkansas closed the popular Petit Jean State Park, about 50 miles northwest of Little Rock.

Three fires in Oklahoma, fueled by triple-digit temperatures, destroyed at least six homes, and flames in Mississippi have burned several homes and other structures.


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