Southwestern Montana remains focus of fire battle

HELENA, Mont. - Two hundred Canadian firefighters and 500 additional Army troops will reinforce beleaguered crews battling wildfires across the West, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said Friday.

Mike Dombeck said most of the Canadians will be assigned to Montana while a second battalion of 500 Army troops from Fort Hood, Texas, will undergo firefighting training and join 500 Army troops and 500 Marines already assigned to fires in Idaho.

Dombeck toured the Idaho and Montana fire lines Friday and promised adequate resources for fire crews.

''We're really at the mercy of Mother Nature,'' the forest service chief said. ''Unless we have a miraculous change in the weather, I think we can look forward to several tough weeks ahead of us.''

In Montana, 15 major fires were burning on 100,000 acres. Hundreds of homes were evacuated in the Bitterroot Valley, where heavy smoke cut visibility to zero on stretches of highways.

Hundreds of people evacuated for safety were unable to return home, and gentle, teasing rain that fell in scattered locations was little help to platoons of firefighters. Thickening smoke obscured the mountains, prompted health alerts and restricted airplanes flights in parts of Montana.

Across the West, dry thunderstorms generated 75,000 lightning strikes that sparked more than 400 new forest fires in a single day, federal fire coordinators said.

Seventy large wildfires were burning over more than 747,000 acres. Fifteen of those large fires, and more than 100,000 of those acres, were in Montana. Smaller fires blistered thousands more acres, and other land is black from fires that have been controlled.

Smoke pollution became serious in many areas, especially Missoula, and health officials in western Montana warned people to stay indoors. Whole mountain ranges disappeared into hazy woodsmoke, and private aviation in some areas was hindered by limited visibility. Commercial air traffic was unaffected.

In Montana, 15 major fires were burning on 100,000 acres. Hundreds of homes were evacuated in the Bitterroot Valley, where heavy smoke cut visibility on stretches of highways to zero.

Major fires included the 1,800-acre Blodgett Creek fire four miles west of Hamilton, in the Bitterroot Valley. Although small in acreage, it was a priority because it threatened homes in the scenic valley and forced evacuations.

Crews from rural fire departments were standing by to protect houses, while law enforcement officers maintained roadblocks and provided security for vacated homes. Crews from the Forest Service and other agencies battled the fire itself, on the ground and with an aerial attack that included six helicopters.

Near Helena, the Boulder Hill fire grew to 3,500 acres and the High Ore Road fire advanced across 900. Both were detected Wednesday and sent people from their homes.

Also in the Helena area, crews continued to make progress against the Cave Gulch Fire, which began July 23 and burned 27,250 acres. The fire was 75 percent contained Friday and managers expected full containment Sunday.

In Utah, eight large fires covering 109,800 acres were burning. Firefighters had the largest complex - a group of fires that had scorched more than 45,000 acres in the West Desert - 75 percent contained, but faced at least 20 new fires started by lightning storms Thursday night.

Those flames came with a half mile of the Aragonite hazardous waste incinerator before crews could stop them.

Elsewhere in the state, high winds were preventing progress on fires burning 3,246 acres on the steep hillsides above Timpanogos Cave National Monument, and crews were hoping for help from helicopters on a fire that had consumed 650 acres of heavy timber in a wilderness study area near the Book Cliffs.

In Nevada, one crew member was killed and three other people were injured when a fire-fighting helicopter crashed Thursday night. The Bell 206 helicopter was assigned to the Charlie fire, which has burned about 3,600 acres in the rugged Murdock Range northeast of Elko.

It was the fifth firefighter death this year, but the first in the current spate of western wildfires. Deaths occurred earlier this year in wildfires in Florida, Texas and South Dakota.


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