Crews Keep Battling Mont. Forest Fires

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- Firefighters kept an anxious eye on the weather Monday as they used hand tools and bulldozers to strengthen defensive lines around houses threatened by a wildfire that exploded across the landscape during the weekend.

The remains of a third house destroyed by the flames were found in the ashes Monday. About 70 families remained out of their homes, down from the 250 families evacuated during the weekend.

The fire several miles west of Missoula traveled three miles in two hours Saturday, charging across some 6,000 acres, as powerful wind blew through the area. Firefighters said they were able to save about 100 homes by spraying them with foam.

The weather was calm and overcast Monday and the fire remained at about 7,300 acres, but fire officials said more strong wind was possible as early as Tuesday.

``The weather is going to be a large factor this week,'' said Susan Rinehart, information officer at the Northern Rocky Mountains Fire Information Center in Missoula.

About 180 families that fled the wildfire's surge south of Missoula returned to their homes Sunday, but about 70 remained under mandatory evacuation orders.

``We're allowing them in, but asking them to stay alert to what's happening,'' said fire information officer Martin Esparza.

Rinehart noted that fires continued to threaten power lines in several areas around Missoula, including one that carries power for the Bonneville Power Administration to eastern Washington, and a NorthWestern Energy line that provides power to the Bitterroot and parts of Missoula.

South of Missoula, another group of wildfires had burned across nearly 15,000 acres by Monday, about 7,000 acres larger than on Saturday.

Because of that spreading blaze, Missoula County sheriff's deputies during the weekend evacuated residents of two areas about a mile from the town of Clinton, less than 10 miles from Missoula.

Eleven fires active Monday in Montana had each blackened at least 10,000 acres, and the biggest, on the northwest edge of Glacier National Park, had covered 43,000 acres.

In Wyoming, crews worked Monday to douse hot spots and clear burned trees from along one of the major routes into Yellowstone National Park, fire officials said. The highway from Cody, Wyo., to the park's eastern entrance has been closed since Thursday.

That fire had burned 14,000 acres along a 12-mile stretch of the highway. Firefighter spokesman Greg Thayer said authorities hoped to have the road reopened by late this week.

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