Forecast of rain cheers Montana fire crews

Wednesday, August 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RED LODGE, Mont. – There was something unusual on Montana fire lines early Wednesday: optimism, brought on by cooler temperatures, relatively light wind and forecasts of rain.

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Updates from National Interagency Fire Center

Fire managers said most of the state's fires made no significant advances Tuesday. Overnight temperatures dipped to near freezing in some areas.

"This is the first real weather pattern change in the West for three months," said Bob Nester, a National Weather Service forecaster assigned to an 80,000-acre blaze between Helena and Bozeman.

Gov. Marc Racicot on Tuesday asked President Clinton to declare Montana a federal disaster area because of its huge wildfires.

The state has exhausted its firefighting resources, and a federal disaster declaration would free up more federal money, Racicot said. He estimated the fires are costing Montana businesses $3 million a day.

There are 31 large fires burning 674,000 acres in Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The biggest accounted for almost 250,000 acres after two blazes in the Bitterroot Valley burned together.

Nationally, there are 84 fires on 1.6 million acres. Idaho reported 26 large fires on nearly 745,000 acres; Wyoming, five large fires on 52,000 acres; and South Dakota one 65,000-acre blaze.

So far this year, 6.2 million acres in the United States have burned, the center said.

Firefighters and equipment were pouring into Red Lodge to begin the ground attack on a blaze that had forced 150 families from their homes a few miles south of town. About 100 of them were allowed to return Tuesday.

The 3,500-acre Willie fire – so named because Willie Nelson was headlining a music festival in Red Lodge – was about four miles from town Tuesday.

The Beartooth Highway route to Yellowstone National Park remained closed south of Red Lodge but the park remained open.

The fire is near Wapiti Mountain in steep, rocky and timbered terrain. No structures have burned.

In Idaho, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne authorized $25,000 to install air filtration equipment in schools and community centers in the town of Salmon, choked by smoke from one of the nation's largest wildfires.

The Clear Creek fire merged with the Aparejo fire Tuesday, together burning nearly 200,000 acres, Salmon-Challis National Forest spokeswoman Mary Lunsford said.

Two New Jersey firefighters working on the Clear Creek fire were injured Monday when a driverless fire tanker rolled over their tent as they were resting between shifts. One man had a broken leg and two broken ribs, and the other had abdominal swelling and neck pain. They were expected to be released from a hospital Wednesday.

More than 1,500 men and women have been scraping fire lines for more than a month at Clear Creek. Some 620 Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., who have been assisting the effort are expected to return home Friday.

Across Montana, more than 11,000 firefighters are manning fire lines, including military personnel, with more than 140 aircraft providing support. Firefighters have been provided by 27 states and the countries of New Zealand, Australia and Canada, the governor's office said.

State officials estimated nearly $120 million in federal, state and local funds have been spent fighting fires over the past month.

An additional 137 members of the Montana Air National Guard also were activated Tuesday. So far, 329 Air Guard members have been deployed to reinforce containment efforts on the state's wildfires.