- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

BILLINGS, Mont. | Fire crews were shoring up defenses around a Montana ski hill Thursday, taking advantage of a lull in winds that had pushed a large wildfire to within a half-mile of the resort’s summit.

The nearly 15-square-mile fire burning through a canyon in the Beartooth Mountains near the town of Red Lodge has forced people to evacuate the ski hill and 90 nearby homes.

On Wednesday, fierce winds sent embers flying toward the ski area, lighting numerous small fires that prompted authorities to ask employees of the town’s namesake resort to leave. The winds subsided Wednesday evening and Thursday.

“The weather is supposed to be perfect firefighting weather today,” said Kathy Robson, a volunteer spokeswoman for the interagency team fighting the blaze. “No significant winds and it’s not too hot and the humidity has come up a little bit.”

The fire, 10 percent contained Thursday, was about six miles from Red Lodge, about 60 miles southwest of Billings. Residents of 200 homes aside from those already evacuated have been told to be ready to leave.

Fire officials said sprinklers were being installed Thursday to spray down the resort’s lodges and other buildings - augmenting snowmaking guns that have been running for several days to keep the resort damp.

Five summer cabins and three other structures have burned since the blaze began Saturday. The cause remains under investigation.

Outside Yosemite National Park, a 53-square-mile blaze sparked Friday by a target shooter was 45 percent contained Thursday. It has destroyed 21 homes, caused hundreds to evacuate and for days had spit up clouds of ash that obscured the park’s granite peaks.

Residents of about 200 evacuated homes were allowed to return Wednesday, but people chased from another 150 homes were still waiting to go back Thursday.

Ken Wagner, 63, was unable to reach what are now the ashy remains of his second home, a cabin tucked in the dry brush and woodlands lining the Merced River canyon where the fire was still active.

Mr. Wagner, who runs a backhoe service in the nearby ranching town of Cathey’s Valley, anticipated he would lose his entire investment in the property, because he said insurance companies he consulted wouldn’t write him a fire policy since he lived in a high-risk area.

“I kept hoping for the best, so hearing it’s gone just kind of took the wind out of me,” he said Thursday. “It staggers the brain to think about how much devastation a fire can have, how many people this affects.”

More than 2,000 blazes have scorched 1,875 square miles in California already this year, as compared to the nearly 1,720 square miles that burnt in 2007, when blazes raged across Southern California, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire season, however, is not even half over.

“Typically we don’t see wildland fires of this magnitude until much later in the season,” Ms. Herring said. “But with the dry fuel conditions that we have throughout the state we could see similar situations arise again until we get a significant amount of rain.”

  • AP writer Garance Burke contributed to this report.
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