Western inferno continues

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | August 21, 2000

"This is going to go on for awhile. It's scary to be asking 'when will it end?' " Kareene Ostermiller, spokesperson for the National Guard, echoed the words of thousands of

firefighters, evacuees, and fire survivors in the West as gusty winds on Sunday hampered efforts to control new large blazes.

Late Saturday, there were 94 fires burning in 11 states. By Monday, that number was up to 98. Firefighters in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon,

Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming are battling blazes in conditions that not only spread fires but persistently ignite new ones.

In Montana alone, some 1,200 members of the National Guard have been fighting fires for weeks on end. "One couple got off fire duty, went and got married, and went back

to fight the fires," said Ostermiller. "Another officer's wife had a baby, and he took off eight hours, then went back to fight the fires."

"Many of these fire fighters are young people who have lives, and they've put those lives on hold to do this," she added.

"Volunteer firefighters are playing a huge role," said Jim Chesnutt, deputy public affairs officers for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 8.

Chesnutt described traveling to the fire line with a crew for a day. "People were at a house and fire was coming down, and the crew said 'we can't save this one.' The volunteer

crews said 'we're from this community, and we know this guy, and we can save this one.' His shed was gone but they had removed all his tools. So when he comes home he'll

find all his tools are safe even though his shed is gone. If that doesn't move you, I don't know what will."

Fire fighters from the U.S. Forest Service, volunteer fire companies across the nation, the military, the Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies and groups have

found support on the fire lines from the Salvation Army, local churches, American Red Cross, and others who provide water, meals, and moral support.

Fire survivors and evacuees are seeking solace in churches, shelters, and with friends and family in many states. The Grace Lutheran Church in Hamilton, MT, provided some

80 HEPA-filters -- valued at about $150 each -- to help fire survivors remove smoke from their homes. "The smoke is a huge burden here," said church member Carolyn

Quaintance. "People with asthma, the elderly, and babies are at a very high risk."

The church pooled its own financial resources -- plus funds from Lutheran Disaster Response and other Lutheran-affiliated response organizations -- and purchased the filters.

"We are also providing financial help with food vouchers and pharmacy vouchers for evacuees," added Quaintance.

Lutheran Disaster Response, working in partnership with Lutheran Social Service of Montana, has appointed a coordinator in that state to handle fire response. On Monday,

emergency assistance was centralized in Hamilton in a trailer on a public parking lot, where distribution of HEPA filters will continue.

The Humane Society of the United States continues to support evacuated pets and animals in several states.

While forecasters are predicting that temperatures should drop this week across much of the West, thunderstorms expected in the northwest mean an increased chance of

lightning that could spark new blazes.

So far this season, fires -- the worst in 50 years -- have scorched more than 5.4 million acres. Currently, there are fires raging on more than 1 million acres across the United

States, with the biggest blazes in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

In Montana, the hardest hit state, the governor has declared a disaster area. The state's 30 large fires are burning on more than 530,000 acres. The focus in Montana on Monday

was on a blazes in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula, that was threatening at least 1,500 homes.

FEMA has made five fire-suppression declarations in Montana.

Large blazes in Wyoming also continued to burn. On Friday, Gov. Jim Geringer declared his state a disaster area.

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