IMAGE: FIRE IN MONTANA
Andy Larsson  /  AP
The 180,000-acre fire near Big Timber, Mont., is not the only one troubling the state. The fire seen here was raging Tuesday night outside the town of St. Ignatius on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation in western Montana.
updated 9/6/2006 2:49:58 PM ET 2006-09-06T18:49:58

After being grounded by smoke for a day, firefighting helicopters returned to work Wednesday, pouring water on a nearly 290-square-mile wildfire that had destroyed 26 homes and forced hundreds to evacuate.

A small fleet of helicopters and airplanes that had been dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water and fire retardant each day was briefly pulled off the fire Tuesday because of the low visibility, said fire information officer David Daniels.

The aircraft were back on duty by late afternoon and the helicopters returned Wednesday.

Ground crews, meanwhile, made gains on the blaze, increasing containment to 45 percent by Wednesday morning, said Joan Dickerson, a fire information officer.

They were still struggling to contain advancing flames on the fire’s northwest corner, though.

“That’s the piece we’re trying to hold onto again today and secure that corner,” she said. “If we can get through that today, things are going to look pretty good.”

Because of the fire, the state Department of Environmental Quality said air quality in Bozeman and in the fire area was “very unhealthy.”

Schools moved some athletic practices inside. People with asthma were having flare-ups. “We’re selling a lot of over-the-counter medicines for eye problems,” said pharmacist Brian Westberg in Bozeman.

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 fire’s western flank, although fire information officer Dave Daniels said firefighters appeared to have prevented any homes from being damaged. About 840 people evacuated earlier along the eastern edge were allowed to return late Monday.

In Washington state, 10 large, active fires have blackened nearly 468 square miles.

The largest of those, northeast of Winthrop, had covered more than 161,000 acres, or about 251 square miles, and was 56 percent contained.

That fire was within a mile of the Canadian border. A separate 32,000-acre fire crossed the border into British Columbia, about 125 miles east of Vancouver. An evacuation alert was issued to an undetermined number of residents “to get people ready ... in case they do have to leave on short notice,” said Mary Ann Leach of the Kamloops Fire Center in British Columbia.

Elsewhere, Nevada fire officials were hampered by a lack of resources in their battle against a new round of wildfires that had blackened 217,000 acres, or 339 square miles, by Wednesday. Dry lightning touched off up to two dozen new blazes Sunday and Monday across the region, fire information officer June McMillen said from Elko.

One Nevada blaze, which had covered 110,000 acres near Battle Mountain, swept past a small gold mine without causing any major damage. “It was an underground mine and the miners just hunkered down underground as the fire moved by,” McMillen said.

In Southern California, a wildfire had spread across 1,700 acres of brush in steep, rugged terrain in the Los Padres National Forest. On Monday, the fire had prompted hundreds of campers and fishermen to evacuate a nearby recreation area. No homes or other structures were threatened.

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