August 17, 2007

Wildfires Rage in Montana, Wyoming


FRENCHTOWN, Mont. - Residents who fled a fast-burning wildfire that threatened more than 200 homes are trying to determine whether theirs are still standing.

In the early Friday darkness, Mike Rutter watched as the lights of fire engines intermingled with flames on a distant hillside near his home.

"I'm definitely worried," he said, sitting in a church parking lot with his two children after midnight. "We're just hoping these guys are successful. I know they are trying."

Officials did not have a firm count on the number of homes that burned, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that at least three had been lost.

High winds pushed the wildfire out of the forest and into homes in the rural area west of Missoula Thursday evening, authorities said. The fire calmed down after sunset, but flames could still be seen from town - flaring up occasionally on a hill dotted with emergency vehicles.

Some 300 residents were ordered to evacuate, according to FEMA. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The fire was among more than a dozen major wildfires burning in Montana. At last official estimate, it had burned 850 acres.

More than 200 firefighters were working the blaze, and fire officials hoped to get more crews and equipment Friday.

Another wildfire was burning on the northern edge of the Teton Pass Ski Area, which features two lifts, a day lodge and a ski shop. The fire in the Lewis and Clark and the Flathead national forests had blackened 46,908 acres, or about 73 square miles.

A fire southeast of Missoula continued to threaten homes along Rock Creek. Nearly 80 homes and cabins remained evacuated Thursday, but people were allowed brief visits to check on their property. The blaze was one of three burning in the area. Combined, the fires had scorched about 41,705 acres, or just over 65 square miles.

In Wyoming, firefighters planned to step up their attack Friday on a 29-square-mile fire that has threatened a century-old lodge outside Yellowstone National Park.

Two specialized crews trained to work in rugged terrain were due to arrive early in the day.

Most ground crews have kept their distance and concentrated on setting up defensive sprinkler systems around the Pahaska Tepee Resort - which includes a 1904 hunting lodge built by Buffalo Bill Cody - and dozens of other cabins and lodges along the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

Many residents and vacationers have fled over worries the fire could flare up.

The shortage of resources, on top of dry conditions, wind and high concentrations of trees killed by a beetle infestation, allowed the fire to push within about 3 miles of Pahaska by Thursday night. Fire officials said they hoped to block it on Friday from spreading toward Crow Creek, a drainage that leads right into the resort.

The fire began Aug. 9 with a lightning strike inside Yellowstone. After expanding rapidly over the past week, the fire forced the closure of the park's eastern entrance on Tuesday.

At the Buffalo Bill lodge, firefighter Byron Bennett said he was confident the lodge and surrounding cabins would be saved. But he said everything else could soon go.

"Any embers get in here, we'll snuff them out," Bennett said. "But we might as well get this over with and burn everything else through."

In Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle declared a fire emergency, noting firefighters have battled nine wildfires on four islands covering 18,500 acres since July 1.


Associated Press writers Matthew Brown and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne contributed to this story.