Fires Continue to Burn Across Montana

BILLINGS (AP) -- Grasses that flourished with spring moisture are being dried out by summer heat and brisk winds and turning into fast burning fuels for area wildfires.

At least three lightning-caused fires were burning in Montana Wednesday, with the largest, the 5,000-acre Big Horn Mountain fire in southeast Montana, burning through rugged, tree-lined terrain, grasses and sage, Mark Heppler, assistant manager of the Billings Dispatch Center, which helps coordinate resources, said Wednesday.

About 200 firefighters were on that fire, which was started by lightning on the Crow Indian reservation and was not threatening any buildings or communities, he said.

The fire's small growth Wednesday came mostly within the lines.

''It burned into some areas that needed to be burned in anyway to finish this off,'' said Pat McKelvey, fire information officer with the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

He said the fire was 50 percent contained, with full containment expected Saturday night.

A second 20-member Hot Shot crew was expected to help burn out more areas within the fire lines, McKelvey said.

A special management team was expected to take over management of the McArthur fire Thursday morning. The fire, which began on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, grew to an estimated 1,100 acres after spreading late Tuesday afternoon into ponderosa and juniper, said Craig Flentie, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. No structures were immediately threatened, he said.

A new fire was reported Wednesday afternoon, 12 miles southwest of Jackson.

The Berry Meadows fire, driven by 30 mph winds, burned 100 acres of lodgepole pine in five hours, said Jack de Golia, with the Dillon Interagency Dispatch Center.

The fire is being fought by 15 smoke jumpers from Missoula and West Yellowstone and 15 firefighters from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. An air tanker was dropping retardant on the blaze. Another 175 firefighters have been ordered and are expected to arrive Thursday.

Firefighters wrapped three buildings on private land along Berry Creek that lie in the path of the fire, which is burning in a very remote area. The cause is unknown.

Meanwhile, crews planned to continue mop-up on the 125-acre Johnny Ridge fire, about 20 miles southwest of Ennis. The firefighting force was being scaled back because the worst seems to be over, de Golia said.

Conditions are in line with what officials consider a more normal fire season for Montana, with activity picking up in late July and fires moving through grasses, state forester Bob Harrington said. After a wet spring that helped put a damper on the region's extended drought, fire fuels such as trees and grasses are drying out.

''Is there reason to believe this is going to be another 2000 or 2003? Not really,'' Harrington said, referring to two very active fire years. ''Things could change, but the fire season is expected to be more normal.''

Still, it's important that people take care with such things as where they park their cars and make sure any campfires are out, Heppler said.