Weather change has fire bosses more optimistic at Montana blaze that destroyed 20 homes

Friday, September 1st 2006, 1:29 pm
By: News On 6

BIG TIMBER, Mont. (AP) _ Lower temperatures and some overnight rain helped slow an enormous wildfire that had destroyed 20 homes and led to evacuation orders for hundreds of people.

The blaze in south-central Montana was estimated at more than 156,000 acres, or more than 240 square miles _ up from about 18,000 acres on Tuesday. Along with the homes, it had destroyed 15 other buildings and two private bridges across the Stillwater River.

Fire officials expected to take advantage of the shift in weather to attack the leading edge of the fire, said fire information officer Brian LaMoure.

``Things on the fire are actually quite stable right now,'' he said Friday morning. ``We actually got some rain last night. I didn't know at first if I was dreaming or what. But we did get some rain.''

Denny Nickel was taking the fire in stride Friday as he ate breakfast at a cafe in Columbus. He spent Thursday cleaning a defensible space around his home to protect it from flames and moved his horses to a safe site miles away in Billings.

``If you are going to live in this country, you've got to learn to live with this country,'' said Nickel, a retiree whose home sits on about 800 acres north of Columbus.

Authorities ordered evacuations of some 500 homes in Sweet Grass and Stillwater counties.

Stillwater County Undersheriff Woody Claunch said he didn't know when people would be able to return to their homes. Numerous risks remained, including downed power lines and burned trees that were still standing but could fall at any time.

Elsewhere, a fast-moving blaze in western Colorado had forced the evacuation of at least 40 homes.

The fire was reported Thursday, between Rulison and Rifle, about 190 miles west of Denver, and was estimated at 1,300 acres on Friday, said Larry Helmerick of the interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordinator Center. No homes were destroyed, but at least 50 homes were threatened and a tourist lodge was in imminent danger.

In eastern Washington, firefighters were racing to shore up lines around several large wildfires before the arrival of warmer, drier weather forecast next week.

The largest Washington fire had blackened 149,487 acres, or 233 square miles, between Conconully and Winthrop in the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests. It was being battled by 2,051 firefighters and was about 48 percent trailed.

The fire stalled about 5.5 miles south of the Canadian border in the Pasayten Wilderness, where firefighters wrapped historic cabins in protective fabric as a precaution, spokeswoman Diane Bedell said.

In Southern California, a 2,000-acre blaze in the San Bernardino National Forest was 75 percent contained Friday. A two-day evacuation for Mountain Home Village was lifted Thursday, as was the evacuation of a nearby Christian camp.