updated 8/5/2005 3:10:14 PM ET 2005-08-05T19:10:14

A string of fires forced the closure of a 90-mile stretch of highway, and authorities cited a quick response by emergency crews for protecting nearby towns.

About a dozen fires broke out Thursday along Interstate 90 in western Montana, closing the four-lane road from Missoula to the Idaho line, officials said. The road remained closed early Friday after at least 1,000 acres along the highway burned — at times on both sides of the road.

Officials said they were investigating arson or possibly a vehicle dragging something that emitted sparks.

“This absolutely wasn’t an act of God,” fire spokesman Scott Waldron said Thursday.

Thursday evening, a steady stream of helicopters swooped down on the Clark Fork River, filling 500-gallon buckets and flying off to hot spots. Planes also had dropped 18 loads of retardant, authorities said.

Homes spared
Some residents were evacuated near Alberton.

Sharon Sweeney, a spokeswoman with the Lolo National Forest, said flames burned within inches of numerous homes, but firefighters were able to save all but one building, believed to have been a shop or garage.

There were no reports of injuries and no other immediate reports of any significant damage, she said.

All but four fires were contained by Friday.

On average, more than 7,000 vehicles pass through the St. Regis area on I-90 each day, officials said. Traffic was rerouted to other roads.

Bone-dry conditions
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer had declared an emergency for wildfire danger Thursday because of current bone-dry conditions and forecasts for continued hot, dry weather.

“We will pray for rain and prepare for the worst,” he said.

In Washington, firefighters appeared to gain better control of a handful of blazes around the state Thursday, including a nearly 1,000-acre fire that had forced the evacuation of residents near Lake Wenatchee earlier in the week.

“As long as the weather continues to cooperate, I think we have a good handle on this one,” said Ranger Vaughan Marable of the Wenatchee River Ranger District.

Some homes remained under an evacuation alert, meaning residents could be asked to leave at a moment’s notice.

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