HELENA (AP) – Firefighting crews in Montana battled the four top priority wildfires in the West on Wednesday, blazes that have led to the evacuation of hundreds of people.
In a normal year, Wednesday would have been the beginning of the summer fire season in Montana, but drought has put most of the state two to three weeks ahead of schedule and more hot, dry weather is forecast.
“It’s going to be a long season,” said Warren Bielenberg, fire information officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest in northwest Montana.
Smoke from the blazes filled the Helena, Kalispell and Missoula areas by midday Wednesday, prompting air quality alerts. Health officials urged residents – especially children, the elderly and those with respiratory ailments – to stay indoors or limit outdoor activities until the smoke cleared.
Florida officials announced they had sent 37 firefighters from that state to help battle the growing blazes in Montana.
“Because this is our rainy season, we can deploy these men and women at a time when the wildfire risk in our own state is low,” said Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson.
Large wildfires also were active in California, Idaho, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, the National Interagency Fire Center reported.
The No. 1 priority for firefighters Wednesday in the West was a blaze in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness north of Helena that grew Wednesday to 31,238 acres, or about 32 square miles.
Residents of 60 homes southeast of Wolf Creek were evacuated Tuesday, adding to residents of at least 60 other homes that were evacuated earlier.
The fire, about 25 percent contained, was expanding Wednesday toward evacuated areas to the southeast, where hand crews, aircraft and bulldozers worked to build lines and keep it in the wilderness, said Cheryl Larsen, fire information officer. Ranchers began moving cattle out of the area as a precaution.
“The scope of this fire and the fuels and terrain it’s in, this is going to be something they anticipate will be burning for a while,” she said.
The Boise-based fire center, the government’s logistical support center for fighting wildfires nationwide, ranks large blazes according to the threat they pose to life, property and natural resources, center staffer Tim Swedberg said Wednesday.
Fire managers representing several federal agencies meet twice daily to select those fires that will have first call if additional firefighters or equipment are needed, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The No. 2 priority fire had covered only about 3,000 acres east of Clinton in western Montana but led to the evacuation Tuesday of about 40 homes in the West Fork of Cramer Creek. It was only 10 percent contained Wednesday and was threatening power lines and other structures, Bielenberg said.
Along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, the No. 3 firefighting priority had spread over about 16,000 acres, or some 25 square miles, and was only 5 percent contained. A lodge was evacuated and residents of several homes had been urged to leave.
The No. 4 priority was Montana’s largest wildfire, west of Augusta, which had claimed 39,220 acres, or 61 square miles, and was just 3 percent contained Wednesday, Bielenberg said. Authorities had ordered 27 homes evacuated and ranchers moved cattle to safer pastures.
A new fire, meanwhile, was threatening several homes west of Billings. Local firefighters joined state and Bureau of Land Management crews in trying to keep the flames from spreading, officials said.
West of Philipsburg, campers and residents of 40 homes were still displaced because of a complex of fires that had charred an estimated 2,520 acres. As many as 100 homes were threatened.
Calmer winds Wednesday were expected to push one of the fires away from the threatened Rock Creek area, said Pat McKelvey, fire information officer.
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