Fires Rage in West

Tuesday, August 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — After forcing hundreds of people from their mountain homes, fires sweeping across Montana's Bitterroot Valley destroyed dozens of buildings as authorities warned that winter might be the only cure to the worst fire season in decades.

``I think it's highly likely we'll be looking to the military for more help,'' Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said Monday in Idaho. ``Our fire season could be another two months, maybe a little longer.''

More than 20,000 civilian and military firefighters managed to contain 60 fires in the past week, Dombeck said, but fires were igniting just as fast. President Clinton planned to visit an Idaho fire Tuesday.

More than 4 million acres have burned in the United States this year, far more by this time of the year than in 1988, when parts of Yellowstone National Park went up in smoke. This season has seen devastating fires in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, California, Idaho, Washington and now Montana.

Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson expected further evacuations and told residents to move livestock and prepare to get out.

``If you choose wrongly ... you may stay there forever,'' he said.

The number of fires and the number of people displaced from their forested, rural dwellings has focused the spotlight on the Bitterroot Valley, which has seen a population explosion over the past decade.

The area has swelled with urban expatriates eager for a log home, nestled in the forest, with snowcapped mountains on the horizon. Many of those mountains now are charred and the trees potential torches.

Jack Broadley of Hamilton was able to check his residence Monday. He found it unscathed, but his neighbor's home was gone.

``All you can do is tell them the bad news,'' he said.

Fire officials said more than 300 firefighters were trying to battle the smallest of the area's major fires. One blaze, however, was burning closer to Pinesdale, where many residents already have evacuated.

Twenty-one ``large'' fires were burning in the northern Rockies, 20 of them in Montana. Some fires were not being actively fought for lack of fire crews and managers.

``We are doing everything humanly possible,'' Gov. Marc Racicot said. ``We've got some 7,500 firefighter personnel here in Montana,'' but there are more than 60 large fires in the West covering nearly 1 million acres.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, will dispatch a team this week to begin training another battalion of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, for use on fire lines in the West. Marine crews from Camp Pendleton, Calif., are also pitching in.

Dombeck declined to speculate on whether military manpower will hit the eight battalions used in 1988, when more than 7 million acres burned nationwide. At a community meeting in Hamilton on Monday, a Forest Service official said there are 64 special fire-management teams nationwide, and ``this is the first time in history they've all been out.''

The wildfire at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado moved past cliff dwellings Monday and headed toward a research center, where firefighters stood guard to protect priceless artifacts used by ancestral Pueblo Indians.

Firefighters caught got a little break Monday afternoon when a rain storm swept over the area.

``It wasn't enough to put it out, but it was enough to keep it from spreading,'' said fire team spokesman Don Ferguson. He said the 5,000-acre blaze remained a ``persistent threat'' to archaeological sites in the park that was swept by a 23,000-acre fire last month.