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Big Sky state is closing forest lands due to wildfires

SHARE Big Sky state is closing forest lands due to wildfires

HAMILTON, Mont. — More than 6 million acres in the Big Sky state have been closed to the public, a move prompted by fires that have burned 300,000 acres, forced hundreds of evacuations and destroyed scores of homes.

Gov. Marc Racicot encouraged people to pray for relief from the devastation. "We would not do this if it were not absolutely essential."

Nationally, more than 20,000 firefighters were battling 70 large wildfires across 992,000 acres in the hot, dry West on Wednesday. This year, 4.3 million acres have burned, about twice the 10-year average.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho is recruiting up to 80 people from New Zealand and Australia to join fire crews that already include firefighters from Canada and Mexico. It is uncertain when they will arrive and where they would be assigned, said Neal Hitchcock, a manager at the center.

Montana's fires are concentrated in the Bitterroot Valley, where at least 52 homes have burned and more than 970 people have had to evacuate.

Racicot said the closure of between 6 million and 8 million acres of state, private, tribal and federal land was necessary to prevent additional fires and to reduce the chance of people being trapped.

Hiking, fishing and all other activities on state land are forbidden beginning Friday unless a permit is obtained. Only homeowners who must cross the lands to reach their homes are exempt.

In Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, officials said they hoped to have a 5,000-acre fire that threatened ancient cliff dwellings fully contained by Friday.

In Utah, fire officials said higher humidity was helping them in their battle against 10 major fires covering more than 55,000 acres. But Oregon has joined Washington state in declaring a state of emergency, freeing National Guard troops to be called up for firefighting duty.