More Army soldiers heading to wildfire front lines

BOULDER, Mont. (AP) - Hundreds of evacuees were allowed to return home Sunday as crews made progress against one set of huge Montana wildfires, and more Army soldiers were sent to help weary firefighters.

A group of 79 firefighters from Australia and New Zealand also were headed to Montana to work as line operations supervisors, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

There were 76 fires burning Sunday in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, the fire center said. Those blazes had blackened about 869,000 acres.

South of Helena, people forced to flee 270 homes because of the threat from two fires in the Elkhorn Mountains were allowed to return home Sunday.

Firefighters had gotten a break from the weather Saturday and made progress toward getting the fires contained, said Larry Humphrey, incident commander on the fires. They had covered about 13,500 acres.

''Things are going pretty good,'' said Erin Connelly, a fire information officer.

More than 365,000 acres of Montana had burned as of Sunday. State officials estimated 2,439 houses were threatened, including more than 1,900 in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. The fires that began in late July had destroyed 169 buildings, including more than 50 homes.

Firefighters reported progress in the Bitterroot Valley, where one cluster of fires south of Hamilton had burned 112,000 acres and another north of Hamilton had charred 8,700 acres. However, evacuation orders remained in effect for an estimated 1,400 households.

A couple of days with cooler temperatures and little or no wind had given firefighters a chance to concentrate on building more containment lines, said Mike Odegard, a fire information officer.

''So far, so good,'' he said Sunday. ''The fires are kind of sitting on themselves, not making any runs.''

A group of about 560 soldiers from an engineer battalion left Fort Hood, Texas, on Sunday en route to Montana.

''They are helping us out because we are short on people. We're spread awfully thin,'' said Howard Parman, a fire information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center.

They follow 500 other Fort Hood soldiers who earlier were sent to Idaho. In addition, a battalion of Marines was sent to the fire lines from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

To the south, a fire in Wyoming had changed direction, easing the threat on a town.

The 65,000-acre blaze was spreading eastward on Sunday toward Wind River Canyon and no longer toward Thermopolis to the north. For a time Saturday, the town's 3,200 residents had been told to prepare to evacuate.

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