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Associated Press

WEST GLACIER — Forecasts of rising winds and temperatures near 100 degrees on Wednesday signaled another hard day coming for the 900 firefighters trying to keep a wildfire away from Glacier National Park's west entrance.

The Robert Fire advanced some 2,000 acres Tuesday, to 14,200 acres, park officials said Wednesday morning.

"A weather watch is in place for gusty west winds this afternoon," spokesman Bill Schustrom said at Glacier's temporary headquarters in Kalispell, 30 miles south of the park. "That's a big concern because it would be moving into the structured area of the park."

Winds were expected to gust up to 22 mph. Fire behavior specialist John See said winds could throw embers more than a half-mile and create spot fires ahead of the main blaze.

Firefighters set backfires or "burnouts" Tuesday to create a 2,000-acre "black line" that might both block the fire and draw it away from the headquarters complex of buildings just inside the park near West Glacier.

"I'm not going to pull any punches," See told about 300 people at a public meeting in Columbia Falls Tuesday evening. "It's going to be challenging for fire behavior (Wednesday)."

Before noon Tuesday helicopter began dropping what one official called "pingpong balls of flame" in front of a growing wildfire, hoping to divert it from hundreds of homes and businesses evacuated Monday evening.

Hotshot crews also set a burnout on a line along Camas Road, one-half mile from Apgar Village and West Glacier — the areas firefighters hope to protect.

West Glacier, on the west-central edge of Glacier National Park, was mostly empty, save for emergency workers and about 60 residents who ignored Monday's order to leave. About 500 residents evacuated from Glacier and the surrounding area Monday night after authorities grew concerned a main escape route would be cut off.

In addition to the larger burnout, or in preparation for it, large air tankers were skimming across the scenic Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, filling with about 3,000 gallons of water to dump onto the trees near evacuated homes and business to make sure the burnout didn't turn on the town.

Nearby, curious and nervous groups of onlookers watched from the highway as the backfire began to burn.

As the sun began to set, fire officials met with the public to help calm their worries.

"It's a little unnerving. It's pretty ugly looking." said Coram resident Dave Dumon. "We're all hoping it works, that's why were all here."

The Robert Fire is within 11/2 miles of West Glacier — and still moving in dense trees and rugged hills nearly inaccessible to fire crews.

Gov. Judy Martz viewed the fire by helicopter Tuesday, finishing her tour with dinner and a briefing at the Robert Camp. As Stam showed her on the map where the blaze was going, she told the group, "We can't thank you guys enough," adding that the job of a firefighter is not one she covets.

"It takes a very special person to do it," she said.

Combined, the fires burning in and just outside Glacier are nearing 50,000 acres, with about 2,000 firefighters in three fire camps. About 170 fire engines, dozers and water tenders are committed, along with a dozen helicopters and retardant bombers.

The 20,469-acre Wedge Canyon Fire is burning in the northwest corner of Glacier, just six miles south of the Canadian border. It was 20 percent contained Tuesday evening with a firefighting cost of $5.7 million.

The fire, which has burned six dwellings and 19 outbuildings, is still threatening about 100 homes and cabins near the North Fork of the Flathead River.

"As long as the fire is still active, they are threatened," said Lisa Keibler with the Flathead National Forest.

Roads in a 400,000 acre area between the Wedge Canyon and Robert fires remained closed Tuesday.

A third wildfire, the Trapper Creek Fire, has burned 14,600 acres inside the park in a remote area north of Going-to-the-Sun Road. It was 25 percent contained.

It is now threatening some historic buildings in the park, including the Granite Park Chalet.

Amtrak said its Empire Builder passenger train was no longer stopping in West Glacier, and was diverting passengers to Whitefish or Essex.

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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