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Mont. Firefighters Gain Upper Hand

September 6, 2000

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ The last wildfire refugees were trickling back to their homes as officials lifted the remaining evacuation orders in parts of southwestern Montana.

The blazes had forced residents of nearly 100 homes to flee the scenic Bitterroot Valley, some as long as a month ago, said Jim Chinn of the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department.

Across the state, road barriers and land-closure signs came down as millions of acres of land were reopened to hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts, though some fire-danger restrictions remained. Similar conditions in Idaho enabled officials to reopen more than 2 million acres that had been closed there.

``It’s just nice to have the trails open so you can go out during your lunch hour and take a break when it’s a nice, sunny day,″ said Mark Bisom, who was finally able to ride his mountain bike through Helena National Forest.

Nearly 20 million acres of public, state and private land had been closed in Montana, about one-fifth of the state.

Though the weather and an army of some 11,000 firefighters seemed to be getting the upper hand on wildfires that have this year blackened 846,000 acres in the state, the threat in the West was far from over.

As of Wednesday, 86 large fires were burning on 1.6 million acres in Arkansas, California, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In Texas, the largest fire among more than 60 to sweep the state this week was out of control Wednesday, blazing through more than 6,000 acres of woodlands near the Louisiana border. Thirty homes in the area had been evacuated and two were destroyed.

Elsewhere in Texas, a blaze west of San Antonio kept about 250 people out of their homes Tuesday and Wednesday. North of Houston, about 100 residents were evacuated until a 300-acre fire was contained.

David Whitehead refused to leave his New Caney home in the path of the blaze north of Houston.

``I had to stay and help,″ Whitehead said Tuesday as he patrolled his yard with a garden hose. ``I couldn’t leave my house.″

Crews from Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida were helping battle fires burning roughly 10,000 acres of drought-stricken Texas as temperatures hit record highs this week of over 110 degrees.

Colorado has lifted its ban on prescribed forest burns because of cooler, wet weather, but no major burns are planned since crews are too busy fighting fires elsewhere. Stephen Pedigo of the U.S. Forest Service said Colorado’s fire season probably won’t end until the first big snowfall.

In Idaho, a fire that has burned 200,000 acres in the Salmon-Challis National Forest was expected to be contained by month’s end, fire officials said.

``It’s getting pretty slow,″ said Audrey Kuykendall, a fire information officer at the Salmon-Challis National Forest. ``The cooler temperatures help a lot. They’re going in and pulling out excess equipment.″

The weather has brought its own problems for firefighters. Some crews are experiencing flu-like symptoms caused by moisture, cold, smoke and hard working conditions, said E. Lynn Burkett with the National Interagency Fire Center. Medical units are stationed at larger fires.

Mudslides also have become a problem, said Pat Thrasher, information officer for an 181,700-acre complex of fires in western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Fires burned away so much of the forest floor’s protective covering that erosion is a problem and mudslides have sent forest debris onto roadways, he said.

In Washington, some Republican senators said Tuesday they would examine whether the Clinton administration was adequately prepared for the wildfires and whether its policies put more public land at risk.

___

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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