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Sawtooth Fire

Smoke rising over the Sawtooth Fire burning near Hamilton.

Cool weather that rolled into Montana Wednesday helped crews trying to contain major wildfires burning across Montana, but forecasters said the heat will return by week's end with no rain to dampen the blazes.

With at least seven major fires raging across the state, the first possibility for precipitation will not come until early next week, said National Weather Service forecaster Todd Chambers. And even that could be a mixed bag: The rain might be accompanied by thunderstorms that could ignite new fires.

Temperatures dropped into the mid-20s and the wind eased Wednesday during the fight against the Sawtooth Fire near Hamilton, a relief for firefighters who had been battling the 6-square-mile fire in high temperatures and gusting winds.

An evacuation was lifted on roughly half of the 400 houses west of town where residents were ordered to leave Monday when the fire made a dangerous run toward populated areas.

Hamilton Fire Chief Brad Mohn said that as of 7 p.m. Wednesday residents would be allowed back into rural neighborhoods not immediately threatened.

But Mohn says residents should not return with any livestock, pets or property that could hamper their exit if they are called on to evacuate again. Fire officials said residents with health problems related to the smoke should consider staying out of the area.

Only one outbuilding has burned in the fire. But hundreds of houses are considered at risk as more than 300 firefighters and other personnel try to tame the blaze.

With another round of warm weather expected by Friday, officials said they were keeping the evaucation order in place in areas still threatened by the lightning-caused fire.

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On the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, a tribal official said two bison were killed after a fast-moving wildfire burned through a pasture where a small herd of the animals had been relocated from Yellowstone National Park.

The animals were in the path of the human-caused wildfire that has consumed more than 15 square miles since it ignited Tuesday, said Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan.

Magnan said a calf was burned to death and an adult female had to be put down because her eyes were burned. Six other bison from the 80-animal herd suffered lesser burns and were expected to survive, he said.

Magnan said he would either move the surviving animals to another area with better grass, or give them supplemental feed so they can stay in a 2,100-acre pasture built for the animals.

Authorities said one house and a commercial property were threatened by the fire burning in grass and wheat stubble about 23 miles north of Highway 212.

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