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New Montana fire forces evacuations

Idaho firestorm destroys most of a guest ranch

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HELENA, Mont. — Beleaguered firefighters in Montana enjoyed something of a lull in their battle against dozens of wildfires, but a new blaze near Yellowstone National Park forced the evacuation of up to 150 homes.

And a firestorm in a remote Idaho forest destroyed most of the buildings at a guest ranch. Another guest ranch was ordered evacuated.

There were concerns the entire town of Red Lodge, a resort community near Yellowstone in south-central Montana, might have to be evacuated in the face of the blaze. Wind was expected to gust to 30 mph during the night.

"We're constantly re-evaluating whether there will be a need to evacuate the town," population 1,875, a Forest Service official said Sunday.

Near the town, 100 to 150 homes were evacuated, fire officials said Monday. The blaze had covered 3,000 acres by Monday.

No other major flare-ups were reported Sunday in the state, where more than 10,000 firefighters worked to combat 23 wildfires that have consumed some 670,000 acres.

"Everything stayed about the same," said Dan Kincaid, information officer for a fire burning between Helena and Bozeman that has turned more than 84,000 acres to ash.

Whether fire crews were in fact able to hold their own Sunday may not be known until officials get their next look at aerial infrared photos that accurately map the fires' boundaries at night.

"I have a feeling that we'll discover that some of the fires have increased dramatically," said E.Lynn Burkett of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "There's so many elements out there working against us — steep canyons, winds that make fires run."

Gusty wind in central Idaho on Sunday turned one of the blazes in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness into a firestorm that raced six miles and burned 21 of the 29 buildings at the Pistol Creek Ranch. The main lodge at the guest ranch was unharmed, but 17 cabins were destroyed.

The area had been evacuated long before and no injuries were reported. The fire was one of a group of fires that have blackened about 117,000 acres some 50 miles northeast of Challis, Idaho.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of another guest ranch 11 miles away and recommended evacuation of a third.

Elsewhere, a fire burning out of control in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest might have been set, a U.S. Forest Service official said Sunday at a town meeting.

"It probably is human-caused, possibly arson," said Mike Lloyd, of the U.S. Forest Service. The fire has burned an estimated 62,000 acres.

George Broyles, with the Spearfish District of the Black Hills National Forest, said most of the sparsely populated area that has burned is U.S. Forest Service land.

On a map, the burned area like a left-handed oven mitt. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is at least 13 miles east of the fire's eastern perimeter and was not believed to be in danger.

Three outbuildings and two homes were damaged Saturday night; voluntary evacuations covered 600 square miles, officials reported.

Authorities expressed relief Sunday at the scene of the nation's largest cluster of fires in southwestern Montana's Bitterroot Valley, where a patchwork of blazes has blackened more than 260,000 acres.

"We did get some growth on the fires, but nothing incredibly huge," information officer Connie Myers said. A wind shift turned flames from that blaze back into already-burned areas.

East of Missoula, a fire in the Lolo National Forest tripled in size, to 4,500 acres, pushed east by 25 to 30 mph wind toward about 40 summer homes, said Marcia Hogan, a fire information officer for the Southwest Montana Coordination Center. Helicopters dropped water on the fire until nightfall and engine crews were protecting the homes.

In California, a 100-acre wildfire in the American River Canyon in Placer County crept toward homes in an upscale subdivision. By nightfall, the threat had eased and a voluntary evacuation order was lifted for dozens of Newcastle residents.

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov

Black Hills National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r2/blackhills/index.htm