Wind Threatens Montana Fires


Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Beleaguered firefighters in Montana enjoyed something of a lull in their battle against dozens of wildfires, although a new blaze broke out near Yellowstone National Park and forced the evacuation of up to 150 homes.

There were concerns the entire town of Red Lodge, a resort community in south-central Montana, might have to be evacuated in the face of the blaze, which was pushed along by winds expected to reach 30 mph overnight.

``We're constantly reevaluating whether there will be a need to evacuate the town,'' population 1,875, a Forest Service official said Sunday.

No other major flare-ups were reported Sunday in the state, where more than 10,000 firefighters worked to combat 23 wildfires that have consumed some 670,000 acres.

``Everything stayed about the same,'' said Dan Kincaid, information officer for a fire burning between Helena and Bozeman that has turned more than 84,000 acres to ash.

Whether fire crews were in fact able to hold their own Sunday may not be known until Monday morning when officials get their next look at aerial infrared photos that accurately map the fires' boundaries at night.

``I have a feeling that we'll discover that some of the fires have increased dramatically,'' said E.Lynn Burkett of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. ``There's so many elements out there working against us — steep canyons, winds that make fires run.''

Elsewhere, a fire burning out of control in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest might have been set, a U.S. Forest Service official said Sunday night at a town meeting.

``It probably is human-caused, possibly arson,'' said Mike Lloyd, of the U.S. Forest Service. The fire has burned an estimated 62,000 acres.

George Broyles, with the Spearfish District of the Black Hills National Forest, said most of the sparsely populated area that has burned is U.S. Forest Service land.

On a map, the scorched area like a left-handed oven mitt. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is at least 13 miles east of the fire's western perimeter and was not believed to be in danger.

Three outbuildings and two homes were damaged Saturday night; voluntary evacuations covered 600 square miles, officials reported.

Authorities expressed relief Sunday at the scene of the nation's largest cluster of fires in southwestern Montana's Bitterroot Valley, where a patchwork of blazes has blackened more than 260,000 acres.

``We did get some growth on the fires, but nothing incredibly huge,'' information officer Connie Myers said. A wind shift turned flames from that blaze back into already-burned areas.

East of Missoula, a fire in the Lolo National Forest tripled in size, to 4,500 acres, pushed east by 25-30 mph winds toward about 40 summer homes, said Marcia Hogan, a fire information officer for the Southwest Montana Coordination Center. Helicopters dropped water on the fire until nightfall and engine crews were protecting the homes.

In California, a 100-acre wildfire in the American River Canyon in Placer County crept toward homes in an upscale subdivision. By nightfall, the threat had eased and a voluntary evacuation order was lifted for dozens of Newcastle residents.

On two TV network news programs Sunday, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot argued with Clinton administration officials over how much blame the president bears for the outbreak of fires this year.

``The condition of our forests are such that each administration that is charged with dealing with them has to, on their watch, make absolutely certain that they do all they can to maintain forest health,'' Racicot said. ``We haven't done that.''

But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the severity of fires is a result of a volatile combination of unusually hot, dry weather and a buildup of trees and underbrush from a 100-year-old policy of suppressing all forest fires.

Meanwhile, 500 Army troops from Fort Campbell, Ky., were scheduled to join the firefighting effort Monday morning on the Bitterroot fires after two days of training.

Susan Reinhard at the fire center in Idaho said a low-pressure system from the Pacific Ocean is expected to move along the Canadian border this week but most of the moisture it brings will fall to the south of Montana.

``Instead, the weather system will bring more of the firefighters' enemy: wind,'' she said.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

Black Hills National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/blackhills/index.htm