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Montana, Oregon wildfires prompt evacuations, smoke warnings

July 31, 2019
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In this Saturday, July 27, 2019 photo, flames rage next to Interstate 5 south of Canyonville, Ore., during the Milepost 97 Fire. Interstate 5 drivers should expect delays Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in both directions as fire crews remove hazardous trees south of Canyonville in southwestern Oregon. The Oregon Department of Transportation says traffic will be slowed in both directions between mileposts 88 and 101 from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Oregon's Milepost 97 fire is believed to have started Wednesday because of an illegal campfire. (Jon Mitchell/The News-Review via AP)
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In this Saturday, July 27, 2019 photo, flames rage next to Interstate 5 south of Canyonville, Ore., during the Milepost 97 Fire. Interstate 5 drivers should expect delays Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in both directions as fire crews remove hazardous trees south of Canyonville in southwestern Oregon. The Oregon Department of Transportation says traffic will be slowed in both directions between mileposts 88 and 101 from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Oregon's Milepost 97 fire is believed to have started Wednesday because of an illegal campfire. (Jon Mitchell/The News-Review via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Hundreds of Montana residents who fled their homes because of a four-day wildfire were allowed back Tuesday to gather important belongings as Oregon authorities warned of unhealthy air because of another blaze that sent smoke wafting over a key highway and drifting more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the state’s border with California.

In Montana, fire officials expressed frustration that about half of the people told to leave 400 homes and two state campgrounds threatened by the fire did not heed the evacuation warning issued over the weekend.

“We need to try to figure out the mindset of people,” Mike DeGrosky, chief of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Fire Protection Bureau, told the Great Falls Tribune newspaper. “It wasn’t like they were soft-selling the issue, and we still didn’t get a good response.”

The fire in hills with housing subdivisions about a 20-minute drive north of Helena has burned more than 7 square miles (18 square kilometers) of timber, including dead trees killed by beetles that burn easily. The flames came close to many homes, but no structures have burned, fire officials said.

The fire started on federally owned land near a location that has been used as an informal shooting range and is believed to have been caused by a person, though investigators have not determined the precise cause.

About 360 people were fighting the fire, including 160 digging fire lines in an effort to contain the blaze. They were helped somewhat by light rain that fell Monday evening that increased humidity in the area, officials said. A brief thunderstorm Tuesday sparked several small new fires in the area, the Independent Record newspaper in Helena reported.

Law enforcement officers escorted people to their homes Tuesday morning so they could retrieve essential items, like medication.

In Oregon, officials said the fire near the small city of Canyonville that started last Wednesday sent smoke over Interstate 5, forcing authorities to limit traffic on the key north-south highway to one lane because of poor visibility. Some distracted drivers trying to take pictures of the blaze have caused traffic accidents, said Al De Vos, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The smoke prompted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to warn of unhealthy air conditions in the communities of Ashland and Talent near the state’s border with California — marking the third time in three years that wildfire smoke has lingered in the area.

At least nine firefighters have suffered minor injuries fighting the wildfire that has burned 19 square miles (49 square kilometers), including one hit by flying debris. Although the fire is just a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Canyonville, only three homes were evacuated.

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Zimmerman reported from Salem, Oregon.

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