Fire-Threatened Power Lines Back in Service in Montana

ALBERTON, Mont. (AP) -- Major power lines threatened by Montana's largest wildfire were back in service Friday, after the Bonneville Power Administration determined the lines and towers supporting them escaped damage in the fire's midweek surge.

The two 500-kilovolt lines that move power to customers in the West operated well below capacity, as they did when the Tarkio fire made a run Wednesday and BPA shut them down. Power was rerouted while the lines were idle.

On Thursday, the Tarkio fire and another, smaller blaze in western Montana's Interstate 90 corridor became one 10,000-acre fire, after crews torched land that divided them. The fires were merged for safety reasons, said Trish Hogervorst, a fire information officer.

''It's not safe, when you have two fires that close together, to have firefighters working between them,'' Hogervorst said.

The Tarkio fire had been burning toward the less troublesome West Mountain fire and officials feared a repeat of conditions Wednesday, in which three firefighters deployed emergency personal shelters as the Tarkio advanced. The three were unharmed as the fire burned over them, fire commander Bob Sandman said.

''Their gear burned up, but they were fine,'' he said. ''They took refuge after an ember shower started raining down on them.''

''The firefighters did what they were trained to do,'' Sandman said. ''During this blowup, 800 firefighters walked off the hillsides without a scratch. It was a success story.''

Officials Friday planned to report findings from an investigation into use of the shelters. An investigation is standard procedure whenever the shelters are deployed. Officials say the information gathered may help improve firefighter safety.

Sandman said Friday's forecast called for cooler weather and possible rain, conditions that could help firefighters gain an edge on the blaze, which was 40 percent contained.

The Tarkio and West Mountain fires were among those that started along the I-90 corridor on Aug. 4, possibly by arson or sparks from a passing vehicle. At one point, flames breached the Alberton city limits and destroyed a building containing vintage cars and other antiques and tools.

The Forest Service on Friday asked for the public's help in finding a man suspected of trying to set a fire Tuesday on private timberland in the I-90 corridor. Loggers immediately put out the small fire the person is believed to have started, said Forest Service spokeswoman Paula Nelson. The agency said the man was in a blue or black GMC pickup truck with Idaho license plates.

Early Friday, a 20-mile stretch of the Clark Fork River reopened to public use. The area had been closed for safety reasons while buckets attached to helicopters scooped water to drop on the Tarkio and West Mountain fires. Dipping will take place in calmer water elsewhere, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said.

Improving weather in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula helped firefighters reach 40 percent containment on a nearly 1,700-acre fire burning on the CB Ranch near Darby, Bitterroot National Forest officials said. John Thompson of the management team said the fire is likely to burn until the first snowfall.

Also in the Bitterroot Valley, the 3,800-acre Rockin fire was 60 percent contained. The blaze is in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

In the Superior area of west of Missoula, the Prospect fire grew to 2,240 acres. Northwestern Montana's 873-acre Camp 32 fire near Eureka was contained Thursday.

In the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, rain fell on the 3,550-acre Kelly Point and 100-acre Limestone Peak fires Friday morning, and there was chance of snow Friday night, spokesman Dick Fleishman said. Managers were assessing potential weather-related risks to crews assigned to the two high-elevation fires. Possible risks included hypothermia if nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s and conditions were wet, Fleishman said.