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Rain provides hope in Montana fires

BY P.J. HELLER | Red Lodge, MT | August 31, 2000

"Right now - especially with the change in the temperature, getting a little moisture, the promise of rain

that's coming in - a lot of the disaster has been averted through natural conditions," said the Rev. Susan

Watterson of Red Lodge Community Church, (United Church of Christ).

But, she quickly noted, "It could be much more of a disaster if the wind changes or the weather


Firefighters continued to battle the blaze, about five miles from the town, which erupted Sunday after a

motorcycle crash on Highway 212. Sparks from the crash ignited the dry grasses along the roadway -

which leads into Yellowstone National Park - and forced the evacuation of 150 families.

Those residents began returning to their homes for a few hours on Tuesday to check on their property

and to pick up any items they might needs. No homes or businesses have been damaged or destroyed

by the fire.

The American Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at the Civic Center in town but evacuees found

housing with friends and neighbors. A Red Cross spokesman said the shelter would remain open

during the day but it was not known how many more days it might be open.

Community members have been kept apprised of the fire situation through a series of town meetings,

including one held Wednesday morning. Another is planned for Friday.

"It really is an information sharing time and a time for anybody to ask any questions they want,"

Watterson said of the meetings which are well attended. "I think it's really helped to keep people calm."

Among those providing information at the sessions are Forest Service personnel, Red Cross

representatives and town officials.

"People are very much going on with their lives," Watterson said of the 2,300 residents. "We realize we

could get evacuated. Right now, it's a lot less scary than it was Sunday night."

She noted that because of the small number of people who were evacuated and the fact that they all

quickly found other accommodations it wasn't necessary for the town's ministerial association to

formally get involved.

"All of the churches went to the Red Cross and said we would be happy to house people. We have

kitchens and we would be happy to feed people. We can do anything you need. We were never called

upon for that," she said.

She said most of the assistance has been on a person-to-person basis.

"I think basically what church people are doing is they're doing all the stuff that's behind the scenes," she

explained. "They're taking people into their homes, they're helping them to get settled."

Faith-based leaders also were working with the local hospital to identify any residents who might

require assistance if forced to evacuate. The Red Cross helped set up a "block captain" on each street to

ensure that people, especially the elderly, were alerted if an evacuation order was issued.

Watterson expressed surprise at the amount of national publicity Red Lodge was receiving given that

the fire stopped well short of the town.

"There's a piece of me that wonders why there is all the hype about this fire, because there are so many

fires all over the state," she said. "Most of us are asking why are we getting all this media coverage.

"If it grew to much more of a disaster, if the entire town had to be evacuated, that would be one thing,"

Watterson said, noting, "It wasn't that big of a disaster."

"Certainly this is important to us," she added. "It is a dangerous fire. It has the potential to be very

dangerous. Normally the winds at this time of year can come roaring out of the canyon out of the

south. If that happened, it would just blow that fire up and down on the town."

Firefighters here and elsewhere throughout the state, where 30 large wildfires continued to burn more

than 650,000 acres, were hopeful that rain, thundershowers and cooler temperatures forecast for the

Labor Day weekend would help them in their battle. Isolated showers Wednesday sprinkled

northwestern and central Montana.

President Clinton, meantime, declared Montana a "major disaster," which will make more federal

money available to families and businesses affected by the fires. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who

requested the disaster declaration Tuesday, said it was costing businesses $3 million a day.

The assistance, which will be coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, can include

grants to help pay for temporary housing, minor home repairs and other serious disaster-related

expenses. Funding also will be provided to pay unemployment benefits for people who normally do

not qualify for state compensation and for crisis counseling programs to help individuals and families

adjust to the stress and trauma caused by the fires.

Low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover residential

and business losses not fully compensated by insurance, including business economic losses.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne on Wednesday asked Clinton to declare Idaho a federal disaster area.

Twenty-five large fires covering 717,360 acres were burning across the state, according to the National

Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

A Marine battalion from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, is being trained and will be deployed to the

Clear Creek fire in Idaho.

Nationwide, some 1.6 million acres were burning in 12 other states, with officials calling this the worst

fire season in half a century. Some 26,000 firefighters were battling the blazes.

One published report said the cost to the federal government of fighting this season's wildfires would

be more than $1 billion.

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