Montana Wildfire Overruns Crew; Emergency Shelters Keep Them Safe

ALBERTON, Mont. (AP) -- Three firefighters were forced to use their emergency shelters Wednesday night when a Montana wildfire overran their position, but all three emerged safely, fire officials said Thursday.

The firefighters were among those battling the Tarkio fire when it made a run late Wednesday, forcing crews to retreat and shutting down a major Bonneville Power Administration transmission line in the area.

Fire information officer Alan Barbian said the three firefighters ''acted professionally and deployed their fire shelters as they were trained'' when it was clear they were in danger.

He said the fire burned over the firefighters as they hunkered down inside what are essentially lightweight, fireproof tents, but all three escaped without any injuries and were able to return to camp late Wednesday night.

''The fire shelters worked,'' Barbian said Thursday. ''They did what they're supposed to, and we have three people alive because of it.''

High winds blew into parts of western Montana late Wednesday, fanning the flames of the Tarkio and West Mountain fires that officials say were started last week along Interstate 90.

The Tarkio fire advanced more than four miles and doubled to about 8,000 acres, Barbian said.

The fire spread beneath the BPA lines, shutting down circuits capable of carrying enough electricity to power nearly two cities the size of Seattle, said Alan Hansen, a BPA spokesman in Portland, Ore.

But the lines, which carry power from southeastern Montana to West Coast markets, were carrying only a fraction of their twin 500-kilovolt capacity Wednesday and the fire did not interrupt electrical service, Hansen said. BPA had said earlier that the power could be re-routed around the lines.

The fire was one of many that ignited along I-90 90 from Alberton toward the Idaho border on Aug. 4. Officials said the fires were human-caused, possibly by sparks from a passing vehicle or arson.

I-90 was open to two-way traffic after several days of restrictions imposed to protect firefighters from the hazard of passing vehicles, but only one lane for traffic moving each direction was open Wednesday, the Montana Highway Patrol said.

Also in western Montana, a man was thwarted in an attempt to set fire to heavy timber in the Gold Creek drainage, officials said. Loggers saw the man trying to set Plum Creek Timber Co. property ablaze, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said. He escaped while the loggers snuffed the fire.

Bob Sandman, the incident commander for the I-90 fires, told a community meeting in Alberton Wednesday night: ''We've got weirdoes running around the mountains, which makes me extremely nervous.''

In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire scheduled an afternoon news conference at her office in Olympia to sign an emergency declaration. At least a half-dozen large fires were burning across the state Thursday, and dozens of residents were evacuated from their homes.

The governor's office gave no early details on the scope of the declaration. The order activates the full resources of the state, including potential use of the National Guard and other crews to augment the work of the Department of Natural Resources.

Firefighters reported slow, steady progress on a 42,000-acre wildfire that has burned more than 100 cabins near Pomeroy, in the southeastern part of the state.

About 1,400 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the fire and had it 40 percent contained, fire spokesman Greg Smith said. Crews continued to mop up areas east, north and west of the fire, and were working to protect structures to the south in the Umatilla National Forest.

''We feel like we accomplished a lot today,'' Smith said.

The fire, which started Friday, was moving into rougher terrain in the Umatilla National Forest.

A new fire believed to have been started by a spark from a wheat truck west of Spokane quickly spread, prompting the evacuation of about 20 homes in north Lincoln County, said Andrew Stenbeck, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman. The fire was estimated at 1,500 acres Thursday morning.

The National Interagency Fire Center said 33 large fires, totaling 222,510 acres, were burning in nine states _ Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Washington. So far this year, wildfires have charred 5.5 million acres nationwide, compared to 5.6 million acres at the same time last year.

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center:

Copyright 2005 Associated Press