updated 8/31/2006 11:45:59 PM ET 2006-09-01T03:45:59

A wildfire has burned 20 houses and 15 other buildings and continued to spread in southern Montana, officials said Thursday.

The wildfire was about 156,000 acres, or about 244 square miles. Fire officials had issued evacuation orders for about 250 homes in Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties.

Authorities said they didn't know when people would be able to return to their homes. Numerous risks remained, including downed power lines and burned trees that could fall at any time.

"I know you want to get into your homes," said Stillwater County Undersheriff Woody Claunch. "I want you there, too. But it's my responsibility to keep you safe."

Officials were bringing in the National Guard to staff road blocks. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the county fairgrounds in Columbus, about 36 miles southeast of Big Timber.

Evacuee Pat Karnos, a former volunteer firefighter, left his home with some family mementos but left most of his belongings behind. He said, "The winds picked up yesterday, and all hell broke loose."

Temperatures were cooler Thursday, but winds were gusting to 20 mph. Authorities said conditions were improving.

Weather conditions were better at a wildfire in Washington.

Washington fire partly contained
Wet and cool weather helped slow the growth of a large wildfire in southeastern Washington and winds spawned by a cold front helped push some smaller fires back on themselves, but a windy forecast may make the reprieve short-lived.

The 76,000-acre fire complex in the Blue Mountains was 20 percent contained, and 1,175 firefighters were on the job. But a warmer, drier weather forecast, with highs rising into the 90s by Sunday, could refuel the blaze.

In California, firefighters made progress Thursday in battling a 2,000-acre wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest.

About 1,230 firefighters took advantage of mild winds and an increase in humidity overnight by building lines and setting backfires.

The pre-dawn weather conditions "really helped slow down the fire," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley.

The blaze was 60 percent contained Thursday morning, with full containment predicted by early Friday evening.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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