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Wildfire smoke clearing in U.S. West as storms move through

Officials said air quality should improve as the smoke-trapping inversion breaks up


By Keith Ridler
Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — Storms brought cooler and wetter weather into the Western and Northwestern U.S. this weekend, breaking up a temperature inversion that had blanketed much of the region with acrid smoke from dozens of wildfires.

Officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said Saturday they expected fire activity to decrease over the next several weeks. Center spokeswoman Kari Cobb says air quality should improve as the smoke-trapping inversion breaks up.

The Eagle Creek wildfire as seen from Stevenson, Wash. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP)
The Eagle Creek wildfire as seen from Stevenson, Wash. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP)

"We should see it lifting more today," she said Saturday. "It's predicted to be mostly gone by tomorrow in most of the West."

She said forecasters expect storms to bring some lightning and winds to 30 mph, notably in Montana, but that rain and higher humidity should decrease the chances of new fires.

The center says there are 67 active large wildfires being fought.

A look wildfires across the region:

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MONTANA

Firefighters in drought-stricken Montana used sprinklers and hoses on Saturday to try to protect strategic locations near some of the over two dozen wildfires burning in the state that have forced more people from their homes.

A "rain for rent" system was being used in Glacier National Park, including around Lake McDonald Lodge, to increase humidity in the immediate area. That means firefighters were using sprinklers to recharge a swamp on the perimeter of a 176-square-mile (456-square-kilometer) fire burning near Seeley Lake. The land is too soggy to support bulldozers used to build containment lines but not wet enough to reliably stop the flames from advancing beyond it.

About a dozen people were ordered to evacuate their homes Friday night after very warm and dry conditions pushed a 37-square-mile (93-square-kilometer) fire near Lincoln toward them.

Stronger winds are expected to clear out some of the heavy smoke that has created unhealthy air in the state and grounded firefighting aircraft.

Wind gusts of 35 mph are possible, with the worst winds expected along the Continental Divide where some of the fires are burning.

Montana has spent more than $50 million on fire suppression since the beginning of July, depleting its reserves account and emergency funds at a time when tax revenues are down. It plans to cut programs and services to fill a projected $227 million budget shortfall.

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IDAHO

At least four high school football games were cancelled Friday and another 13 postponed due to smoke from wildfires that the state Department of Health and Welfare said was so bad children and teens should be kept indoors and activities like football and soccer avoided.

Some of those games were rescheduled for Saturday, and state officials said air quality conditions had improved enough that they lifted a statewide Air Quality Forecast and Caution.

Idaho's largest wildfire continues to burn in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho . It's being allowed to burn unchecked, but buildings and bridges are being protected.

Officials say the fire on Saturday had consumed about 126 square miles (326 square kilometers).

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WASHINGTON

A 165-square-mile (427-square-kilometer) wildfire burning within the Pasayten Wilderness about 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of Mazama is the largest wildfire in Washington state.

It also crossed the border into Canada late last month with flames fueled by heavy dead and down timber.

Officials say the fire is about 40 percent contained but rugged terrain is hampering firefighting efforts.

Near Enumclaw, Washington, firefighters are attacking a 1-square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) wildfire that is threatening the watershed for the city of Tacoma as well as industrial timberland.

About 200 firefighters are assigned to that fire.

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OREGON

A wildfire burning in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is holding at about 52 square miles (135 square kilometers) but residents in communities in three counties remain under evacuation notices and those in other communities have been told to be ready to flee.

More than 900 firefighters are battling the blaze that's 7 percent contained and burning in timber.

Officials say firefighters set fires on Friday to burn fuel ahead of the blaze and have greatly reduced the danger of the fire's spread to the north. They say a similar strategy burned up fuel around a communications tower south of Cascades Locks.

Officials say the fire has burned in a mosaic pattern, and some areas within the perimeter of the fire have trees that should survive, keeping at least some of the scenic gorge green.

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CALIFORNIA

A wildfire burning for more than two weeks in far northwestern California continues to chew through timber even as crews increase containment.

Officials said Saturday that the blaze near Helena, a rural community that was once a 19th century mining camp, has consumed nearly 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) of forest. It's 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders remain in place for several homes.

In Central California, a fire on the western edge of the Sierra is half contained after burning nearly 40 square miles (102 square kilometers) of dry brush and trees near Springville.

Hundreds of firefighters are fighting about 20 large blazes across the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Madera, Mariposa and Tulare counties due to wildfires that have burned for several days.

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