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Western Wildfires: Crews Make Some Progress With Cooler Weather, Careful Planning; Incident Commander Discusses Safety Issues

Aired August 22, 2000 - 2:07 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: A break in the weather is just what firefighters in the western U.S. need. Crews have been battling one of the worst wildfire outbreak in decades: 79 major fires now burning in nine states. Most are raging in the forests of Idaho and neighboring Montana.

CNN's Greg Lefevre has this update now from the Montana town of Darby. That's ground zero for the fight there -- Greg.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ground zero, Martin, is exactly the way you would want to put it here. The cool temperatures for the past couple of days have given firefighters a really definitely needed break here and they're using that cool temperature to mount an all-out assault on some of these fires and see what they can do to slow them down. Certainly they're not admitting that they can put them out anytime soon.

Most of the effort is coming in two different ways. One of them is to put lines in front of these fires so that when the fire approaches, it won't go any further. That means cutting trees, cutting brush, wetting down areas. The other way is to light backfires, and that is actually deprive the advancing fire of fuel to continue to burn.

But it's an arduous process and firefighters have to strike a delicate balance between how many people they can put on each fire. They have 154,000 acres of burned forest land here to contend with and only about 1,000 -- I think 944 -- people to do the work. And so it's a chess game every morning, deciding who goes where, how many people go where, and how they can continue to fight these fires safely.

Now, some other events here occurring at the same time, and that is the closure of public lands. Right now, the governor of Montana, Marc Racicot, is considering closing off more land to the public. Last week, nine of the state's 53 -- 56 counties were declared off limits -- the public lands were. The governor is now considering closing off 16 more counties, and he may make that decision as early as tonight. Most of the land being considered is public and much of it is in western Montana. And you talk about a big area, it's about a third of the state of Montana.

The reason is obvious: fire danger. Most of these forest areas are considered tinder-box dry. The other reason is personal safety: the safety of people in those forests. If some of these fires blow up or occur overnight, firefighters are worried that people in there may not be able to get out safely.

We've got to address that question as well. Now to Steve Gage who is the incident commander here at the Valley complex.

Steve, when you close off a public land like that, you've got roads everywhere, you've got trails everywhere. How do you actually get people out of there, keep people from going in?

STEVE GAGE, INCIDENT COMMANDER: Well, actually, there are some entry points that have gates and we can close those gates and a lot of it just is an honor system and we ask people to please stay out of those areas once they've been closed. Our primary purpose here is firefighter and public safety, and by them following the rules we ask them to follow, staying out of the public areas once they've been closed, then we don't have to worry about sending firefighters in to try to find them.

LEFEVRE: When you know somebody's in there, it seems like you've got two problems: the safety of that person and the safety of your crews going in to find them.

GAGE: Yes, and that's really a concern. And if we have people in where they're not supposed to be, you know, then we have to make that tough decision about putting a rescuer in there or a firefighter to go get them, because if we get in trouble, then who's going to rescue the rescuer?

LEFEVRE: Good point. You had a pretty cool night last night. I have to ask you: Give me a forecast. Give me -- take me out the next 12 hours. What's it going to be like?

GAGE: Next 12 hours, again, we're counting on the cool weather like you talked about. We've got a lot of resources out there. We're trying to turn the corner in some of the critical areas where the structures are in the East Fork and the West Forks and the Bitterroot, and get up around and really secure those areas to keep them out of the homes.

LEFEVRE: OK. Steve Gage, incident commander here at the Valley complex, thank you very much.

These fires continue to burn. The weather forecast tomorrow and the next day, temperatures 10 to 20 degrees hotter than today -- bad times ahead.

Greg Lefevre, CNN, reporting live in Darby, Montana.

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