Firefighters Battle Blazes, Weather


Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Firefighters battling blazes burning nearly 600,000 acres across Montana braced for the worst Friday under a forecast of gusty wind, scorching temperatures and lightning.

Temperatures into the 90s and 40 mph wind were expected in areas of the state where some of the 25 major fires are burning.

The National Weather Service said the hot, breezy weather could continue through the weekend in Montana, as well as Idaho and Washington, providing ideal conditions for new blazes.

High wind Thursday fanned two major wildfires burning in Montana, resulting in additional damage to buildings in the Bitterroot Valley and more evacuations in that and on an 81,000-acre fire burning mostly scattered timber and cow pastures between Helena and Bozeman.

In Washington, a lightning-sparked brush fire outside the town of Mabton roared across 100,000 acres by daybreak Friday and was threatening an unknown number of homes on and near the Yakama Indian Reservation. It had covered only about one-third that acreage on Thursday.

About two dozen structures had burned, and 50 Yakima County homes were voluntarily evacuated.

In the Bitterroot Valley, a blaze pushed by 30- to 50-mph wind jumped a road Thursday. Ravalli County officials said some additional buildings were burned, but no dwellings were destroyed. Nearly 70 houses and cabins have been destroyed in the area since the fires began nearly a month ago.

Morning temperatures have cooled across the Northwest and there are other signs that fall is drawing near, but the NIFC said the end of summer does not signal an end to the fires.

``We just don't see a real end in sight,'' said E.Lynn Burkett, spokeswoman for the interagency center in Idaho.

``This time of year, what usually happens is we get monsoon weather in the Southern states and it moves north,'' bringing rain, she said.

But that isn't happening.

Given Montana's extraordinary dryness and the high risk more fires will ignite, Gov. Marc Racicot this week doubled the amount of public land closed to recreation and other uses. An area roughly the size of Maine now has been declared off-limits, effective Friday.

Fires this year have burned 5.7 million acres across the country, and the NIFC said 78 major fires are burning on 1.4 million acres. The fire season already is the worst in at least a half-century.

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On the Net:

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

Travel Montana: http://visitmt.com/fire.htm