Fires Close Western Montana's Interstate 90, Threaten Town

ALBERTON, Mont. (AP) -- A spate of fires broke out along Interstate 90, closing Interstate 90 to all but emergency traffic and threatening this Clark Fork River valley community for a time, fire officials said.

The four-lane highway was closed Thursday evening from just west of Missoula to St. Regis, just east of Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. It remained closed early Friday with no indication of when normal traffic would resume.

At times Thursday, fires burned on both sides of the highway.

Officials said they were investigating arson or possibly a vehicle dragging something that emitted sparks because there was no natural way a dozen fires would break out at once.

There were no injuries and minimal property damage, but fire spokesman Scott Waldron said flames came just ''inches away from burning'' into Alberton.

He told a news conference that quick response by a massive crew of firefighters saved the town.

Fire cress from Missoula, East Missoula, Frenchtown, Alberton, Superior and the Bitterroot Valley community of Sula responded, along with retardant planes from Neptune Aviation in Missoula and state planes from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Crews from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Idaho Panhandle National Forest also responded.

Waldron said there were some evacuations in the area around Alberton and fire crews would remain on the fires through the night, probably a lot longer. ''We've got miles of fire,'' said the fire chief at Frenchtown.

One fire did burn into Alberton but relatively minor damage was reported.

By dark, firefighters contained all but four of the fires, which had burned over a combined area of 250-300 acres. Two of them burned together, meaning the effort was focused during the night on three separate fires.

At times Thursday evening, a steady stream of helicopters swooped down on the Clark Fork River, filling 500-gallon buckets and flying off to hot spots.

''This absolutely wasn't an act of God,'' Waldron said.