More Montana Land Closures Mulled

Tuesday, August 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's governor is debating whether to bar the public from state grasslands and forests in another 16 counties because of the danger from rampant wildfires.

Gov. Marc Racicot's decision could come as early as Tuesday and would mean closing state lands to campers, hikers and fishermen in most of the western third of the state, an area stretching from Canada to Wyoming.

The governor, who previously declared the entire state of Montana a disaster area, shut access to state and private land in nine western Montana counties last week.

Closures of federal land also appeared imminent as 30 major fires continued burning over more than 630,000 acres. A third of the blackened land lay in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana.

Kimberly Schlenker, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, said heightened fire restrictions on some federal lands would go into effect Wednesday, with further details available later Tuesday.

The Montana wildfires are among blazes across the nation that have charred more than 5.5 million acres this year. Across the West on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center said 79 out-of-control fires in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming had blackened 1.4 million acres.

A group of state and federal agencies recommended the additional land closings in Montana because of the extreme fire danger in the area, the threat to public safety and the lack of resources to fight fires, said Ed Mathews, fire management officer for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Manpower shortages to fight the fires remain chronic, and the interagency fire center said an Army battalion from Fort Campbell, Ky., would be sent to Montana later this week and Marines from Camp LeJeune, N.C., would follow within a few days.

They'll join thousands of firefighters, including military and Canadian crews, already battling the blazes.

Weather forecasts through the week offered little encouragement for firefighters, with temperatures warming into the 90s. There was a chance of thunderstorms in California, southern Oregon, Idaho and Montana by midweek, according to a meteorologist in Boise.

In Wyoming, the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park reopened Monday after being closed since Thursday by a wildfire.

In Idaho, the nation's largest wildfire continued to devour the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The fire had consumed about 159,000 acres and was about one-third contained. Almost 1,600 firefighters were fighting the blaze, aided by 16 helicopters and 58 fire engines.

This summer, fires in Idaho have cost almost $58 million to fight and consumed nearly 1 million acres.

Officials continued fighting a fire that had forced evacuation of the tiny mountain town of Atlanta in the Boise National Forest. Most residents were back in their homes Monday after cooler, calmer weather during the weekend aided firefighters.

``We could see the effects of this fire for years to come,'' said state Bureau of Disaster Services Director John Cline. ``The end result could be mudslides this spring, or it could have an impact on rivers and streams.''

Firefighters in Montana include more than 700 toiling between Helena and Bozeman on a 75,000-acre fire that has destroyed buildings and left ranchers wondering whether their livestock survived.

``The fire today has been pretty calm, settled down, the wind has been calm,'' said Jim Hohn, commissioner of Broadwater County, where an evacuation order was lifted Monday.

Donations of goods and money have been arriving in the state as news of Montana's calamitous fires spread. The American Red Cross in smoky Missoula said it was short of sunscreen and lip balm.


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