Montana University: Student firefighters can start semester late

BOULDER, Mont.- With too many fires and not enough firefighters, the Montana university system told student firefighters Friday they can report for fall classes three weeks late if they stay on the fire lines.

''These students are putting themselves at risk to protect our environment, and it is appropriate that we assist them in their efforts,'' said Richard Crofts, state commissioner of higher education.

The dangers became all too real Friday for firefighters in Wyoming, where a wind-fuel wildfire engulfed a truck, killing one firefighter and burning another on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

It was the sixth firefighter death involving U.S. wildfires this year.

The two firefighters were the only crew members fighting a portion of a blaze in the Owl Creek Mountains, said Perry Baker of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Strong winds had pushed flames out of control, forcing firefighters to back off a 25,000-acre fire and a 5,000-acre fire, both burning in the sparsely populated area of central Wyoming.

Across the West on Friday, large fires were burning on more than 900,000 acres.

Firefighters have joined the effort from throughout the United States and Canada. Military troops are on fire duty, and retired fire managers have been asked to return. In Idaho, where fires are burning on more than 423,280 acres, 79 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand will join the crews this weekend.

In Montana, an estimated 1,800 students firefighters, including National Guard members and volunteers, are expected to qualify for the late start to the fall semester, a university official said.

Classes are scheduled to start Sept. 5 at the University of Montana, but student firefighters will have until Sept. 25 to register, officials said.

More fires were started by lightning late Thursday and early Friday across the region.

The Forest Service said there were 2,200 known lightning strikes in the southwestern area of Montana and in neighboring Idaho. In northwestern Montana, the Kootenai National Forest had 70 new fires sparked by lightning, but only 18 firefighters.

Managers in Montana pulled all crews from a 3,050-acre fire near here to fight the bigger and more threatening High Ore Road fire that forced the evacuation of homes in the Jefferson City area and swept through the settlement of Wickes.

The fire also knocked out two huge power transmission lines that feed into the Pacific Northwest's power grid. Power supply has not been interrupted, but the lines will be out of service through Monday to allow for repairs.

In the southern Bitterroot Valley, tempers flared Friday when U.S. Forest Service officials met with about 270 residents, some of whom accused firefighters of incompetence for setting a backfire that burned their houses.

''It was careless disregard for life. It was arson and attempted murder,'' said Joan Giles. Her house and about a dozen others burned Sunday when fires blew up south of Darby.

Forest Service officials promised an investigation.

East of town, a complex of fires continued to burn out of control in the drought-parched Bitterroot National Forest. Altogether, fires in area have destroyed more than 50 homes and covered more than 175,000 acres.

In Hamilton, about 600 people remain out of their homes because of a 7,600-fire that was just 30 percent contained, and more residents near Darby were forced from their homes.

Elsewhere, there were signs of progress Friday.

Fire managers in New Mexico and Oregon reported all major fires contained. In California, the 11,734-acre Pechanga Indian reservation fire was contained late Thursday, and firefighters were standing by in case the 74,439-acre Manter fire flared from high wind.

In Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies banned open campfires, charcoal fires, fireworks, outside smoking and the use of equipment that could produce sparks on all federal land.

''We have reached a turning point in an unprecedented fire season where firefighting needs have exceeded available resources,'' Ann Morgan, BLM state director, said Friday. ''We cannot afford a human-caused fire in Colorado.''


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