Officials fear 'catastrophic' wildfires

BY SUSAN KIM | Missoula, MT | August 26, 2000

Windstorms are forecast to begin Wednesday and extend seven to 10 days. The western fire disaster could grow

"catastrophic" as a result, she said.

"If potential windstorms with 70 mph winds arrive, fires could run over whole communities. We are acknowledging the

distinct possibility of a disaster of unprecedented proportion," said Hanrahan. "We've lost a little under 700,000 acres so

far. With these windstorms, we could lose that in a day."

Precarious conditions will exist for the next week to 10 days, she said, adding that officials are hoping for a presidential

disaster declaration by mid-week. "If the firewall from Idaho breaks, this could escalate faster than it ever has."

Meanwhile voluntary agencies and community volunteers are still doing what they can to support the firefighters. "Kids

have been writing letters to the firefighters," Hanrahan said. "We delivered those and people were in tears."

Conditions are similar in Idaho, according to Ric Holmes, state public affairs officer for the National Guard. "Six

hundreds soldiers are leaving and we have no replacements," he said. "So we are looking at a situation that's escalating as

far as the fires are concerned. We are looking at evacuating enormous amounts of people if the wind changes."

Over the weekend, many blazes stayed the same or were brought under slightly better control. But new blazes still broke

out. One new fire near Yellowstone National Park forced the evacuation of some 150 homes.

Many people were evacuated in the town of Red Lodge, near Yellowstone. On Monday morning, the blaze covered 3,000


The Rev. Mike Morrissey from the Episcopal Yellowstone Ministries in Red Lodge took parishioners into his home over

the weekend. "The evacuees are not back in their homes. We don't know when they'll be allowed back. So this family

came and stayed with us, bringing some pictures and a couple of cats."

An 84,000-acre fire is still burning between Helena and Bozeman but no new evacuations were reported over the

weekend. "Several churches in the area have gathered together to do special prayer sessions," said Connie Crystal, a

member of First Baptist Church in Bozeman.

Over the weekend, even fires that were brought under better control had new burns inside their perimeters, said Teresa

Odom from the Missoula-based emergency management office, where a multi-agency response is being coordinated.

"We also had a couple of fires that had downhill runs, and two new fires started. One is 3,500 acres. We're expecting

more winds, and we've had some really warm days."

The Salvation Army has been providing canteen services to firefighters, and the American Red Cross has been opening

shelters on an as-needed basis for evacuees. "There is no beginning and no ending to this disaster," said Anita Foster,

Red Cross spokesperson. "There are constant evacuations. People are packing up and leaving, then going home and

packing up and leaving again. They don't know when or if they'll be affected by this disaster."

Red Cross mental health teams have visited 1,500 families in the Missoula area, and have offered support for firefighters

as well.

Over the weekend, a firestorm in a remote Idaho forest destroyed most of the buildings at a guest ranch, and another

guest ranch was ordered evacuated.

On Sunday, gusty wind in central Idaho 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. Seventeen cabins were


The area had been evacuated and no injuries were reported. The fire was one of a group of fires that have blackened some

117,000 acres 50 miles northeast of Challis, ID. Fire officials ordered the evacuation of another guest ranch 11 miles

away and recommended evacuation of a third.

West of Missoula, a fire in the Lolo National Forest tripled in size, to 4,500 acres, pushed east by 30 mph wind toward

about 40 summer homes.

In California, a 100-acre wildfire in the American River Canyon in Placer County crept toward a suburban community.

But by Monday the threat had eased and a voluntary evacuation order was lifted for dozens of Newcastle residents.

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