HAMILTON, Mont. - Hundreds of people were allowed to return to their homes in Montana's charred Bitterroot Valley Tuesday, but were warned keep their bags packed just in case.
''The fires in your mountains will continue to burn until we have significant rain or snow,'' said Sheriff Perry Johnson.
Bill and Wilma Andrews were two evacuees allowed to return home. A 9,100-acre fire drove them out a week ago and came within 10 yards of their house near Pinesdale, a community of about 850.
Many of their neighbors' homes are ashes, and charred metal bands are all that remain of old wagon wheels that once decorated their yard. Their trees are blackened sticks. But amazingly, their vegetable garden survived, its leaves not even wilted.
''I'll tell you, here's two old people who are glad to be home,'' Wilma Andrews, 74, said Tuesday as she sat on her back porch with its dusting of ash.
The Bitterroot burning continues, covering more than 200,000 acres around the valley, as does wildfire activity throughout the West.
In what has been described as the nation's worst wildfire season in a half century, 85 large fires were reported burning on nearly 965,000 acres in the West. Montana's 25 largest fires had burned more than 385,460 acres, the most of any state, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Idaho was second, with 22 major fires burning over 293,000 acres.
Idaho announced its state colleges would extend enrollment deadline to mid- to late-September so students fighting fires can remain on the lines. Montana took similar action last week.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said he did not know how many Idaho students would be affected, but estimated as many as 9,000 of the 20,000 people on fire lines in the West are college students.
The depth of the fire season showed in Yellowstone National Park, where park managers said they will not fight a 90-acre blaze deep in the park backcountry because of a lack of firefighters.
In Montana, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona canceled a campaign bus tour that he planned next week on behalf of fellow Republicans running for Congress and governor, citing the state's fires.
On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/news.shtml