IMAGE: FIREFIGHTER
David Grubbs  /  Billings Gazette via AP
Rich Hayner of the Frenchtown, Mont., Fire Department tends to hot spots Thursday at the Montana fire that had grown to 32,000 acres.
updated 9/15/2006 9:08:20 AM ET 2006-09-15T13:08:20

Strong winds that had caused a fire in an area popular with celebrities to nearly triple in size shifted Thursday and helped slow the blaze’s growth, allowing some residents who had evacuated to return.

The wind shifted “pushing the fire back onto itself, which is a good thing,” said fire information officer Kathy Thompson.

The fire grew to 32,000 acres, or about 50 square miles, as of Thursday evening and had destroyed two cabins and one shop in the Burris Flat area, Thompson said. On Wednesday, winds helped grow the fire to 27,400 acres, or nearly 43 square miles.

Residents of about 275 homes in Sweet Grass County and 50 homes in Park County were told to evacuate, officials said. It was unclear how many homes and cabins remained under the evacuation status Thursday.

Helicopters made more retardant and water drops, unlike Wednesday when the wind and a 35,000-foot plume of smoke hindered efforts to fight the fire, said fire information officer Al Nash.

The fire, started by lightning on Aug. 25, is on the West Boulder River about 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

Charles and Katie Worth said crews wrapped their cabin with fireproof material, making it look like “a giant baked potato.”

Personalities including former television news anchor Tom Brokaw own property in the area. Brokaw said by telephone from New York that his property was in an area where residents were cautioned to be ready to evacuate.

Wash., Calif. fires
In Washington state, crews welcomed cooler temperatures, rain and even snow Thursday as they worked to protect a remote community on central Washington’s Lake Chelan from a fire that grew by 100 acres to 7,794 acres from a day earlier.

About 100 residents in Stehekin remained on notice for possible evacuation, but crews were holding the blaze at Imus Creek, away from the town, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mick Mueller.

In southern California, calmer wind, a cooler temperature and higher humidity gave firefighters a chance to try to box in a 48-square-mile wildfire ahead of hot, dry Santa Ana winds that were expected to begin Saturday. The blaze, near Castaic, was 30 percent contained and remained within a mile of a mobile home park in the Los Padres National Forest.

45-year high
Wildfires across the country have scorched more land in 2006 than in any year since at least 1960, burning an area twice the size of New Jersey.

But the flames have mainly raced across sparsely populated desert, causing fewer firefighter deaths than in previous years.

Federal officials attributed the increase to two consecutive seasons of hot and dry weather that left forest and ranges parched and easily ignited by lightning.

Fifteen federal, state and local firefighters have died this year battling wildland fires. The worst single accident this year was a helicopter crash Aug. 13 in Idaho that killed three firefighters and the pilot.

The 2006 acreage was skewed by unusually large early season range fires in Texas and Oklahoma — blazes that burned mainly sparsely populated areas and did not lead to large numbers of deaths or heavy damage to homes.

The Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service have spent about $1.25 billion fighting the fires since the fiscal 2006 year began last Oct. 1.

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