Western Montana Wildfire Threatens Major BPA Power Line

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- A wildfire threatening a major power line in western Montana is kicking up and firefighters might not be able to keep up with it, a fire official says.

High wind pushed the fire Tuesday afternoon, and fire boss Bob Sandman said it had the potential to run a mile or more over a 24-hour period.

The fire jumped bulldozed fire lines as if they weren't there, he said.

''We knew that once the fire jumped Nemote Creek that we were in a horse race, and it turned out that our horses weren't that fast,'' Sandman said.

That fire and another, nearby blaze that together had burned about 4,700 acres were both potential threats to a major Bonneville Power Administration transmission line carrying electricity from the Colstrip power plants in eastern Montana to suppliers on the West Coast, and officials said an air tanker was assigned to help protect the line.

''We're throwing everything we have at it. I'd hate to venture at how big this fire will get,'' Sandman said.

However, BPA spokesman Bill Murlin said there would be ''little if any interruption'' in power supply if the transmission line went out of service. The lines are not running at full capacity, Murlin said Wednesday from Portland, Ore., where BPA is based. He said the agency was monitoring the fires closely and could cut electricity to the lines voluntarily if fire drew too near.

''We can take them off line voluntarily and we would do that if there was any need for firefighters to be right under those lines,'' he said. ''If the fire itself was to cause an outage, then we would have a situation where we would have to reroute the power, and we can do that.''

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.

In southeastern Washington state, firefighters said a 41,000-acre wildfire that had destroyed an estimated 100 residences was about 35 percent contained.

The fire moved more slowly Tuesday, although humidity remained low and temperatures were in the mid 90s, said Earl Bassett, a fire crew spokesman.

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

The National Interagency Fire Center said 31 large fires were active in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Washington. So far this year, wildfires have charred 5.2 million acres nationwide, compared to 5.6 million acres at the same time last year.