IMAGE: WOMAN SURVEYS DESTROYED HOME
David Grubbs  /  AP file
Mina Cox walks through the remains of her burned-out home Friday near Absarokee, Mont. The 180,000-acre Derby Mountain fire ripped through the area and burned Cox's home but left the guest house at far left untouched.
updated 9/6/2006 12:19:48 AM ET 2006-09-06T04:19:48

Heavy smoke slowed firefighters battling a 280-square-mile wildfire Tuesday, and also prompted air-quality warnings for much of the western portion of the state.

A small fleet of helicopters and airplanes, which has been dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant each day, was briefly pulled off the fire because officials were concerned about flying in low visibility, said fire information officer David Daniels.

“We’re in an inversion, and the smoke is incredibly thick,” Daniels said.

But the smoke began clearing at about 2:30 p.m., and the helicopters and planes were back in the air by mid- to late afternoon. For the first time since the fire began two weeks ago, the blaze had not grown significantly in the past 24 hours, which Daniels credited to “outstanding work” by fire crews.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said air quality in Bozeman and in the fire area was “very unhealthy.” Some high school sports teams and gym classes were called off or brought indoors.

The fire, which has destroyed 26 homes and 20 other buildings, remained estimated at 180,000 acres, or more than 280 square miles. The lightning-sparked blaze had been spreading mostly to the east and the north before a wind shift last week sent firefighters and equipment scrambling back to the fire’s western edge.

About 265 homes were evacuated Sunday night on the western flank, although Daniels said firefighters appeared to have prevented any homes from being damaged.

About 840 people who were evacuated from homes earlier along the eastern edge of the fire were allowed to return late Monday, but most of those evacuated along the western edge were not yet being allowed to come back, fire officials said.

Fire managers remained concerned about the potential for the fire to cross into the Boulder River drainage, a popular recreation area that is also home to large, private ranches and vacation homes.

As of Tuesday afternoon, firefighters had managed to keep the fire from crossing into the drainage, Daniels said.

Elsewhere, up to two dozen new wildfires started by lightning in northeast Nevada on Sunday and Monday had exploded across more than 117,000 acres, or 183 square miles, of rangeland by Tuesday.

In Southern California, a wildfire raced over at least 1 square mile of steep, rugged terrain in the Los Padres National Forest, prompting hundreds of campers and fly fishermen to evacuate a recreation area.

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