- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Wet weather is slowing the spread of Western fires but making it more difficult for firefighters to get to front lines and extinguish flames that have torched 6.5 million acres in two months.

Rain and snow in Montana and Idaho over the weekend helped containment efforts on some fires, but also destabilized burnt mountainsides, causing mudslides to spill over and close roads needed to gain access to fires. One road through Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, where the nation's largest wildfire is burning 179,000 acres, was also closed.

Firefighters on another Montana fire, covering 24,000 acres, were called off because conditions in the rugged areas became too slippery after the snow, said E. Lynn Burkett, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"Some mountain roads are not built for using heavy traffic, and rather than having safety problems, we pulled them back into the camp areas," she said.

"We're still out there, whether it's raining or sunny," she said. "Our job is to keep the fire away from towns and communities and protect human life."

Also yesterday, state and federal officials announced that nearly 20 million acres of forests and grasslands in Montana are scheduled to be reopened to the public at noon today because wildfire dangers have lessened.

"A major factor in making these decisions is the availability of resources to effectively respond to any new fire starts," said Montana Gov. Marc Racicot.

However, fire officials told The Washington Times yesterday that they expect hot and dry conditions to return tomorrow and Thursday, and that the fires could gain a boost from this.

Meanwhile, President Clinton has sent another 500 troops to help fight the fires, bringing the total sent to the fire line in two weeks to nearly 3,000.

Many Westerners say they are thankful for the military's help, but express concern that experienced Montana loggers and firefighters who know the lay of the rugged terrain are not being hired.

Local firefighters have held several protests and contacted Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns for help.

"I understand that there is a shortage of fire managers, but with reports of crews coming from as far as Ohio to fight fires, it is evident that Montanans are not being utilized to the fullest extent possible," Mr. Burns said.

The senator's spokesman said the concerns are being addressed, but that the problem has not been completely solved.

William R. Hansen, a Montana contract firefighter, was fighting two fires in Nevada when he heard the fires in his home state had grown out of control. He rushed his equipment to help put out the fires, only to be told by the Forest Service he was not qualified to fight fires in Montana.

Montana farmer Don Shearer said lost firefighters have approached him for directions, and are sometimes as far as three miles away from the fire they are supposed to be fighting.

"One of the problems we are having is they are bringing in someone who is completely unfamiliar" with the terrain, Mr. Shearer said.

Another local firefighter, Dan Rathbun, strategically parked his backhoe in front of the Bitterroot National Forest Headquarters with a spray-painted sign on it that reads "will fight fire for food."

"We just want to work, we don't want to go to jail," said Mr. Rathbun, who has been in the protests. "Something has got to give."

Harry Croft, deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said there were some early mixups on what training was required for contract firefighting.

"If they are qualified, we will hire them," Mr. Croft said.

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