Power Lines Melt As Montana Fires Rage

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WIRE:08/10/2000 21:40:00 ET Power Lines Melt As Montana Fires Rage HELENA, Mont. (Reuters) - Wildfires raged across the U.S. West on Thursday as Montana officials closed a territory larger than the size of the state of Vermont to public use in an effort to stop more blazes from starting. Fire control officials said 65 large fires were burning in 11 western states.

With resources stretched to the limit, teams of firefighters from Australia and New Zealand were expected to join the battle over the weekend as U.S. officials sought to reassure the firefighting teams that their lives had not been put in jeopardy by budget cuts.

Despite the conflagration which burned out two major power transmission lines and left some Montana towns so dark with smoke that daytime drivers had to use headlights, officials said efforts to contain the fires were making headway. "For the first time in a long time we are ahead of the game, we are getting fires contained," said Mary Stansell of the National Fire Information Center. In Montana, the hardest hit state, Gov. Marc Racicot ordered as much as eight million acres of public and private land closed to public use except by special permit as of midnight on Thursday. "Conditions are such that it is dangerous for the public to be in forested areas because of the possibility of being trapped by a fast-spreading fire," Racicot said in ordering the closure, which covered an area of roughly 12,500 square miles -- bigger than Vermont and larger than the European nation of Belgium.

Officials also reported that two 500 kilovolt power lines which carry power from the Colstrip coal-fired plant in Montana to demand centers in the west had been destroyed by fire heat so intense it melted the aluminum on the lines. Officials at the Bonneville Power Administration said the lines outside of Helena went down late Wednesday, and were likely to remain down for the foreseeable future. Power was being redirected through other lines.

Stansell, working out of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said a total of almost 850,000 acres (345,000 hectares) were burning around the country, with the worst blazes in Montana and Idaho. The total area burned this year has hit about 4.3 million acres, making it the worst fire season to date in nearly 50 years. Dry, hot conditions, combined with the continued threat of dry lightning strikes, made it likely that more fires would continue to break out, officials said. In a piece of good news, firefighters reported they had fully contained a fire in the Sequoia National Forest in California after 20 days. "The good thing about that is that those 1100 people who were working on that fire will be available to work on other fires now," Stansell said.

Firefighters also reported progress against a wildfire in Colorado which had threatened the historic Mesa Verde National Park, site of famous relics and cliff dwellings built by Anasazi Indians hundreds of years ago. That fire was expected to be fully contained by Friday. Help was also coming from overseas as Australia and New Zealand sent 79 experienced crew bosses to help lead fire teams, Stansell said. The Australians and New Zealanders, who will join Canadian and Mexican specialists already helping the 25,000-person army of U.S. firefighters and support personnel, were due to arrive on Friday for orientation. In Washington, officials at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday downplayed concern that budget cuts had left firefighting teams ill-trained and understaffed. "No, the lives of our firefighters and the public were not jeopardized," spokeswoman Lorraine Buck said, reacting to an official memo which had warned of possible repercussions from recent budget cuts. "Regardless of the size of our fire fighting budget, we would not place anyone at risk." The focus of concern remained Montana, where firefighters were concentrating on battling a complex of blazes roaring through the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, where an estimated 1,000 people have been evacuated. Roaring walls of flame which firefighters described as sounding like racing jet engines have consumed more than 50 homes in the area, and teams were struggling to coat the remaining structures with fire-retardant spray in an effort to keep losses to a minimum.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 10, 2000


HOME: US: WIRE STORY Wildfires knock out major power lines to Pacific Northwest 11.12 p.m. ET (324 GMT) August 10, 2000 By Susan Gallagher, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP)  Wildfires burning across the West melted one major power line and shut down another supplying electricity to the Pacific Northwest.

There was no immediate risk of a power shortage, but if another heatwave hits, the other power plants in the regional energy system could be strained, Bonneville Power Administration spokesman Perry Gruber said Thursday.

"Our lines are in bad shape out there,'' Gruber said.

The two 500-kilovolt lines, the BPA's largest, were knocked out by smoke, heat and airborne particles from a 11,000-acre fire burning about 25 miles south of Helena.

Dozens of homes had to be evacuated in the area, and managers at the Montana Tunnels zinc and gold mine sent workers home fearing for their safety. In the Bitterroot Valley in southwestern Montana, wildfires have covered more than 300,000 acres and burned more than 50 homes.

Across the West, dozens of fires burned across 847,000 acres Thursday, the worst of them in the Northern Rockies, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Since the Western fire season started, 4.3 million acres have burned, about twice the 10-year average.

In Idaho, 15 significant fires were burning on about 408,000 acres.

A special operations team of 1,500 firefighters, including 600 Marines, was using heavy equipment to fell trees in an effort to direct flames away from the water source vital to the town of Salmon in central Idaho.

A 26,700-acre fire in west-central Idaho's Payette National Forest continued to burn along the Salmon River, Forest Service officials said. Smoke could blacken and obliterate hundreds of ancient Indian pictographs and rock paintings on rock walls if flames catch on the other side of the river, forest archaeologist Steve Armstrong said.

At the fire south of Helena on Thursday, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. More than 400 people evacuated homes earlier in the week and some nonresidential buildings burned Wednesday.

"We're doing our best, but until the weather changes, this is a very dangerous situation,'' said fire information officer Jack Kendley.

Gruber said the wildfire prevented repair crews from working on the power lines. "It's pretty much up to the flames as to when the lines go back in service,'' he said.

Montana's Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday prohibited open burning, adding to an order Wednesday that all public use of state lands be banned. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management also extended use restrictions statewide on its lands to cut the risk of new fires.

The highest priority in Montana, a 96,000-acre complex of blazes in the Bitterroot Valley, triggered an order for another 50 evacuations Thursday. Nearly 1,000 people have evacuated, and more than 50 homes have burned.

In Colorado, firefighters took advantage of high humidity and rain that calmed a fire burning on 5,240 acres at Mesa Verde National Park, raising hopes that visitors may be able to visit portions of the park as early as next week. The fire was 90 percent contained Thursday night.

Park Superintendent Larry Wiese said the park would reopen as soon as possible, although visitors would not have access to ancient cliff dwellings in the burn area.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 10, 2000.

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