HELENA, Mont. — Montana's governor is debating whether to bar the public from state grasslands and forests in another 16 counties because of the danger from rampant wildfires.
Gov. Marc Racicot's decision could come as early as Tuesday and would mean closing state lands to campers, hikers and fishermen in most of the western third of the state, an area stretching from Canada to Wyoming.
The governor, who previously declared the entire state of Montana a disaster area, shut access to state and private land in nine western Montana counties last week.
Closures of federal land also appeared imminent as 30 major fires continued burning over more than 630,000 acres. A third of the blackened land lay in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana.
Kimberly Schlenker, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman, said heightened fire restrictions on some federal lands would go into effect Wednesday.
The Montana wildfires are among blazes across the nation that have charred more than 5.5 million acres this year. Across the West on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center said 79 out-of-control fires in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming had blackened 1.4 million acres.
In a major new foray into wildfire prevention, the Clinton administration plans to try to put into broad effect an experimental effort under way in Arizona that is intended to leave public lands far less prone to the kind of blazes recorded this summer.
The approach aims to reduce dangers by thinning small trees from forests and leaving the largest, most fire-resistant ones. One draft, circulated by the Forest Service, calls for thinning, over 15 years, most or all of the 40 million acres of national forest deemed at high risk of catastrophic fire.
The estimated cost of the plan would total $825 million a year, said an administration official.
The administration has been criticized in recent days for not doing more sooner to combat the fire threat in the West through emergency logging measures advocated by the timber industry.
At least a partial version of that approach could be made public next month, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman are due to report to President Clinton with a reassessment prompted by this fire season, on track to be the most devastating in decades.
Manpower shortages to fight the fires remain chronic, and the interagency fire center said an Army battalion from Fort Campbell, Ky., would be sent to Montana later this week and Marines from Camp LeJeune, N.C., would follow within a few days.
They'll join thousands of firefighters, including military and Canadian crews, already battling the blazes.
In Wyoming, the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park reopened Monday after being closed since Thursday by a wildfire.
In Hamilton, Mont., a black bear, which was not given a name, was being treated for burned paws at a veterinary clinic. "He'll be a little tender-footed for a while, but he should be fine," said Joe Jacquith, the state wildlife warden who rescued the cub.
He had set a trap for the young animal after a resident told him of the animal's plight. The cub had apparently survived on water from a creek and meat from the carcass of a burned deer, Jacquith said.
In 1950, a bear rescued by firefighters in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, N.M., was named Smokey Bear and became the national fire-prevention mascot. That bear died in 1976.
Weather forecasts through the week offered little encouragement for firefighters, with temperatures warming into the 90s. There was a chance of thunderstorms in California, southern Oregon, Idaho and Montana by midweek, according to a meteorologist in Boise.
In Idaho, the nation's largest wildfire continued to devour the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The fire had consumed about 159,000 acres and was about one-third contained. Almost 1,600 firefighters were fighting the blaze, aided by 16 helicopters and 58 fire engines.
This summer, fires in Idaho have cost almost $58 million to fight and consumed nearly 1 million acres.
Officials continued fighting a fire that had forced evacuation of the tiny mountain town of Atlanta in the Boise National Forest. Most residents were back in their homes Monday after cooler, calmer weather during the weekend aided firefighters.
"We could see the effects of this fire for years to come," said state Bureau of Disaster Services Director John Cline. "The end result could be mudslides this spring, or it could have an impact on rivers and streams."
Firefighters in Montana include more than 700 toiling between Helena and Bozeman on a 75,000-acre fire that has destroyed buildings and left ranchers wondering whether their livestock survived.
"The fire today has been pretty calm, settled down, the wind has been calm," said Jim Hohn, commissioner of Broadwater County, where an evacuation order was lifted Monday.
Donations of goods and money have been arriving in the state as news of Montana's calamitous fires spread. The American Red Cross in smoky Missoula said it was short of sunscreen and lip balm.
On The Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov