Firefighters Brace for Harsh Weather

— Hard, dry winds and rainless lightning are stoking wildfires in the Northwest, in some cases kicking up tornadoes of flames and ash that are starting new fires.

The weather is blowing fire across northwestern states faster than rain falling to their south can help put other fires out. In 24 hours, the amount of American acreage with wildfires burning increased from 1,514,453 Saturday to 1,637,495 acres this morning.

“The weekend’s not over and we expect problems today,” said E. Lynn Burkett, a public information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “As the sun rises, so does the heat. The beast resurfaces.”

“As of this morning, we have 79 large fires, seven of which are new, burning across 10 western states plus Texas, South Dakota and Florida,” Burkett added.

Too Dangerous for Firefighters

As a safety precaution, officials are suspending firefighting efforts at some blazes until the weather calms down, she added.

That may not happen right away, as a “red-flag” alert continues to threaten Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming with violent weather friendly to fires, including high winds and dry lightning. There also are winds and lightning south of Idaho, Montana, and Northern California, Burkett said, but there, rain is falling.

In many cases, the dry wind is kicking up “fire whirls,” Burkett said, which are “spinning, rising column[s] of hot air and gasses that carry smoke, debris, cinders and possibly flame.”

“It carries them up and out past containment lines and sometimes a half-mile to several miles ahead of the fire,” she added. “That sparks new fires. Not only that, it increases the uncontained perimeter of the fire.”

Huge Fire

As a result, many of the existing fires are growing. The largest fire, in the Bitterroot National Forest area of Montana, grew from about 244,000 to 259,000 acres overnight as it formed from the collision of two separate large fires Saturday.

“That is the biggest fire complex in the region. It’s a lot, and with a fire of that size and magnitude it will take a significant fall weather event to stop it — like rain or snow,” Burkett said.

Some firefighters were forced to pull back from one of the component fires, the Mussigbrod Complex fires, but 1,818 people continue to battle the larger element of the Bitterroot-area fire, the Valley Complex fires, Burkett said.

Elsewhere in the West, South Dakota’s governor urged residents of the central and southern Black Hills to evacuate, and potential evacuation plans were ready for two small towns threatened by a blaze in Washington.

Fourteen Dead

This year’s fires have been tied to the deaths of 14 people — 12 firefighters and two civilians who suffered heart attacks while evacuating or checking on property near a fire, said Susan Giannettino, another National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman.

The 13 states with active large fires are Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Texas and South Dakota.

More than six million acres have burned this season, making it the worst year since records have been kept. The previous record was 4.3 million acres in 1996, and the per-year average over the past decade has been 2.6 million acres.

The number of men and women battling these fires is staggering. An estimated 25,000 firefighters are on the front line, using more than 200 helicopters, 600 planes, and 1,000 trucks and bulldozers. Among the firefighters and support personnel are more than 2,300 federal troops in four battalions, including 599 just arriving at the Bitterroot fire.


On ABCNEWS’ This Week, the Republican governor of Montana and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt pointed fingers at each other after the governor said recent federal inertia on forest management contributed to the fires.

“Because of the fuel buildups in our forests, we now have conditions that are unnatural,” Montana Gov. Marc Racicot said. “The fire process is a part of a natural process in the forests of the west, but clearly in this particular instance … this is an unnatural process that we could have done something about. And the fact is that we haven’t.”

Babbitt said the fires cannot be laid at the feet of the Clinton administration.

“The reason the fire is burning out there is two reasons,” Babbitt said. “One, the drought, an act of god obviously. Second, fire suppression policies over the last 100 years has created a tremendous fuel buildups in the national forests.”

Trouble in South Dakota

In South Dakota, Gov. Bill Janklow urged evacuations in the Black Hills after erratic winds nearly doubled the size of the Jasper forest fire to 30,000 acres.

“Yesterday it blew to the east. At night it went west. Today it went north and northeast,” Todd Phillipe, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said Saturday.

Janklow declared an emergency and promised to arrest motorists or anyone else who didn’t belong in the area.

Brush Fire Calming Down

Among the most active fires early this weekend was the Mule Dry fire, burning about 110,000 acres of grassland, sagebrush and crop stubble near the Yakima Indian Reservation in southern Washington state, but the fire was slowing somewhat heading into today.

Firefighters had it half contained by Saturday night and were hoping to have it completely contained by early today, said Mark Clemens, spokesman for the state Emergency Operations Center.

Firefighters are trying to keep the flames from Mabton and Prosser, two small towns nearby.

Clemens said 350 more National Guardsman will be joining 1,100 firefighters on the fire line today.

“It’s only the second time since 1994 that the Washington National Guard has been activated by the governor to assist with a firefight,” Clemens said. “What that means in point of fact is that Washington state firefighting resources are stretched to the very limit.”

“There’ve been 24 structures, including one unoccupied mobile home, that have been destroyed by this fire,” he added. “It’s threatened up to 50 more.”

The fire began Wednesday night after lightning swept through the area. No injuries or evacuations have been reported so far but several residents are leaving on their own accord.

ABCNEWS Radio, ABCNEWS’ Liz Cho, The Associated Press and ABC affiliate WHSV-TV in Washington state contributed to this report.