Montana reopens vast areas to public use as fire danger eases

HELENA, Mont. - Mark Bisom pedaled his mountain bike in the Helena National Forest on Tuesday for the first time since fire danger triggered the closure of public lands in western and central Montana.

''It's just nice to have the trails open so you can go out during your lunch hour and take a break when it's a nice, sunny day,'' said Bisom, who works for the state Commerce Department.

He'd been pedaling on pavement since Aug. 11 when federal, state, tribal and even some private land was closed to recreation and other uses as fires scorched thousands of acres in Montana, and threatened thousands more. As the fire season worsened, additional land was closed two weeks later, pushing the total off limits to 19.6 million acres, roughly the size of Maine.

On Tuesday, most of the closures ended.

The wildfires are not over - Montana had 25 big ones on 645,079 acres Tuesday, while 20 fires burned on 697,669 acres in Idaho. Nationwide, 81 large fires were still burning on 1.55 million acres in nine states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

To date, 74,755 fires have burned nearly 6.6 million acres across the nation, an area nearly the size of Massachusetts.

But with rain and even some snow during the long holiday weekend, falling temperatures and more rain in the forecast, the risk subsided.

The weather brought its own problems. In Idaho, many firefighters are coming down with ''camp crud,'' said E. Lynn Burkett with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Some crews are experiencing flu-like symptoms caused by moisture, cold, smoke and hard working conditions, Burkett said. Medical units are stationed at larger fires.

Mudslides also have become a problem, said Pat Thrasher, information officer for the Valley Complex fires in Montana. He said fires burned away so much of the forest floor's protective covering that erosion is a problem and mudslides have sent forest debris onto roadways. No homes have been damaged by mudslides, he said.

In many areas of Montana, restrictions remain on campfires, wood cutting and other forest activities. At least a couple of state parks remain closed to the public because they are being used as fire camps.

In Helena, the Mount Helena municipal park, a popular hiking area that overlooks the capital city, remained closed to all uses.

''The fire department makes the call on this and they have said no, there's not enough moisture,'' said Carol Kirkland of the Helena parks department.

In some places, closure signs remained up after federal lands reopened at midday.

Only part of the Bitterroot National Forest in southwestern Montana reopened, but officials said additional land may open on Wednesday. The Bitterroot is Montana's hardest-hit fire area.

Its fires include the 181,700-acre Valley Complex, which began July 31. Fire officials say they cannot predict when it will be contained.

In Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness - where the Flossie and Diamond Complexes are burning on more than 175,000 acres - officials said smaller fuels were wet, but they could still see flames in some larger fuels.

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On the Net:

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

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