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WILDFIRES
Associated PressA firefighting helicopter flies low between the burned trees of the Robert fire southwest of West Glacier Friday.Gazette StaffAt their camp at the Buffalo airport, Steve Hoy, left, and Shaylon Sieg, U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado, sharpen blades of hand tools and chain saws at daybreak Friday. They were preparing for another day on the fire lines of the Big Spring fire 20 miles southwest of Buffalo.Associated PressA plume of smoke from the Robert fire fills the sky as seen from the North Fork Road near Columbia Falls Friday. The Robert fire has forced the evacuation of a section of Glacier National Park and is threatening hundreds of homes.

Associated Press

WEST GLACIER (AP) - At least six houses burned in one of three wildfires raging along and in western portions of Glacier National Park, a sheriff said Friday.

No one was injured and there are no reports of anyone missing, Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont said.

Dupont said the houses were lost in the Wedge Canyon fire, which has burned more than 15,000 acres west of the park and about six miles below the Canadian border. They were the first homes in Montana lost to any of the state's numerous wildfires this season.

The structures were most likely summer cabins, Dupont said, and some of them may not have been occupied.

"It's such a mess up there we're saying, 'six that people lived in during the summer.' "

He estimated that there are about 100 dwellings in the area - some more elaborate than others. Dupont said some places are "worth upwards of a million dollars," but it's hard to tell which are which after a fire.

"Those guys up there are going by black spots on the ground," he said.

Fire information officer Jim Pudelka said many houses were saved.

"Our structure (protection) people were ran ragged last night," he said.

The fire was relatively quiet Friday after a big run that more than doubled it Thursday. Moderating temperatures in the 80s helped, as did low winds, Pudelka said. The fire was moving east into the park.

Fire officials said they had no specific information about building losses in either the Wedge Canyon fire or the Roberts fire, north of Columbia Falls. It also was threatening houses.

The Roberts fire and the Trapper Creek fire in the north-central part of the park prompted officials to evacuate the western side of the park Thursday.

The Trapper Creek complex gained a little more than 2,000 acres overnight and was estimated at 14,440 acres on Friday, officials said. It includes the Wolf Gun fire at 1,530 acres and the Paul Buyan fire at about 300 acres.

National Park Service Director Fran Mainella was briefed on the fires at park headquarters and at the Robert fire command camp in Columbia Falls Friday afternoon. She was in Montana to meet with The Glacier Fund, a nonprofit group that supports the park. She said she had never before been to a fire camp.

"I've dealt with fire many times, but to be able now to be out here and to be able to meet with the companies is great," she said.

In north-central Montana, a 131,000-acre cluster of fires remained the biggest in the state but was nearing containment, and officials were preparing to reassign some firefighters and equipment.

Dry lightning started a series of small fires in the southern portion of Eastern Montana late Thursday and early Friday.

Crews were able to quickly contain most of the fires, which ranged from a quarter of an acre to 100 acres, said Dena Sprangdel-Lang, a spokeswoman at the Bureau of Land Management fire dispatch center in Miles City.

The largest blaze was the Kelsey fire south of Miles City. It burned in ponderosa pine and grass northeast of Ashland. Fire crews from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Custer County, local agencies and from the BLM had the fire about 50 percent contained Friday afternoon.

A BLM engine and a Custer County crew fought the 20-acre Deer Creek fire near Volberg Friday morning.

Several small fires broke out in the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest. Firefighters from Powder River and Rosebud counties and the BLM fought the fires. The largest was the Fear fire, which burned four acres southeast of Ashland. Crews were mopping up Friday afternoon. The Mason and Willow fires were each about a quarter of an acre and crews cleared them Friday. The Camps Pass fire was half an acre and contained. A BLM helitack crew helped Rosebud County crews with the quarter of an acre Lacy fire.

There were two early morning fires southeast of Ekalaka on the Sioux Ranger district of the Custer National Forest. The Maverick Gulch fire burned about five acres and was 90 percent contained Friday and the Bergstrom fire was eight acres and 50 percent contained. The fires burned within 100 yards of each other. An interagency strike team, local, BLM, Forest Service and county crews worked the fires.

Crews on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation responded to two 15- to 20-acre fires, said Dwight Harding, a strike team leader trainee. Both fires were contained and being patrolled Friday afternoon.

The Alden fire about five miles south of Lame Deer threatened about four structures. Three Bureau of Indian Affairs engine crews from Billings arrived about 1 a.m. Friday and joined all five of the Northern Cheyenne-based engines on the blaze. Two long squads, or seven-member hand crews, also fought the fire.

"They were the only ones we could muster," Harding said. "We were fairly lucky."

The Tiffany fire burned west of Lame Deer. The fire started on a hillside and backed down into a drainage, Harding said. There were several structures within a mile of the fire. One engine crew and a bulldozer attacked the fire and got a line all the way around it, he said. Single-engine air tankers also helped to slow the fire, he said.

"They helped cool it down until we could get some people in there," he said.

Elsewhere, firefighters were trying to contain other major fires around the state. Overcast skies and cooler temperatures spread across much of Montana, slowing most fires and easing the strain on firefighters.

Light rain fell on the Black Frog and Big Creek fires in western Montana overnight, where nearly 1,200 firefighters have been called.

"Even with that little amount, it has given us the time we needed to try to get ahead of things," Bitterroot National Forest spokeswoman Dixie Dies said.

The Black Frog fire stood at 8,000 acres, and the Big Creek fires at 1,200 acres. U.S. 93 and Montana 43 had been closed by the fires, but officials reopened Montana 43 Friday. Pilot cars will escort traffic on U.S. 93 between Lost Trail Pass and Gibbonsville, Idaho, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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