Winds Expand Wildfires in Western Montana

Winds up to 55 mph fanned several existing fires and brought others to life Monday in western Montana with record temperatures reaching triple digits, officials said.

Late Monday, officials closed the Skalkaho Pass road as the Signal Rock fire in a wilderness area roared to life and dense smoke limited visibility, said Jack de Golia of the Dillon Interagency Dispatch Center.

The fire is in a remote area of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead national forests and grew so dramatically the smoke kept officials from accurately mapping it, said Ted Pettis, an information officer.

He said the fire may have doubled in size, possibly to 5,000 acres.

A fire burning southwest of the Flathead Reservation doubled in size Monday, to about 3,000 acres, officials said.

The Seepay 2 fire is burning north and east along the Flathead River and Montana Highway 200, much of it in heavy timber valuable to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, said Germaine White, information officer.

Several houses in nearby Perma were close to the fire but not immediately threatened, White said.

Officials said 250 firefighters would be on the lines by Tuesday, with 150 more expected later.

''This is the biggest fire so far on the reservation'' this fire season, White said. ''We've had extremely dry conditions and we've been on a tinderbox for the last seven weeks.''

The increasing fire activity was noted at a time when Havre in north-central Montana recorded a record high of 102. A record 99 was reported at Helena, and a record 97 at Great Falls. Temperatures were expected to drop dramatically over much of the state with an advancing cold front Tuesday, forecasters said.

Officials said a passing train may have sparked a grass-brush fire south of Helena near a school at Montana City. It burned over 100 acres before about 80 firefighters and water-dropping aircraft could control it, stiff winds blowing all the time.

Three wildfires burning in south-central and southeastern Montana were contained or nearly so Monday, despite the hot temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds, officials said.

The Cottonwood Creek fire, burning between Columbus and Park City, would be fully contained late Monday after burning nearly 3,500 since a lightning strike started it Friday evening, officials said.

''They had a couple little flare-ups from the wind (Monday),'' said Dena Sprandel-Lang, a fire information officer. ''But everything held pretty good.''

The Ericsons Spring fire burning southeast of Ashland was 80 percent contained on Monday and was expected to be fully contained Tuesday, said Erin Fryer, an information officer working on the fire.

The fire, which started last week and is burning in rugged country, didn't grow on Monday. It has burned about 2,700 acres.

Officials tracking the Power fire near Shepherd also said they didn't see many problems on Monday with 99 percent containment.

The fire, which started Sunday, has burned about 1,550 acres, said Shepherd Fire Chief Stuart Andersen. The fire was considered 99 percent contained on Monday.

The blaze apparently started after a power pole came down, electrocuting a cow and a badger and sparking a fire, Andersen said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press