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Western Wildfires: Firefighters in Bitterroot Valley Greet Fourth Cold Morning in a Row

Aired August 23, 2000 - 1:19 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: This year, wildfires have scorched 5.7 million acres across the nation, burning an area roughly the size of New Hampshire. Almost a million and a half acres are in flames right now. Tinderbox conditions are causing even small brush fires to flair out of control.

As we have seen, some of the biggest fires have been in Montana. CNN's Greg Lefevre joins us live from ground zero in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley -- Greg.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie.

This Bitterroot Valley is going through a very bitter time right now. It is virtually encircled by fires. The fire camp here is in charge of more than a dozen major fires in this area.

Those land closures are very significant. The Bureau of Land Management says it is going to will shut down another 1.2 million acres. Much of that is east of the continental divide. That is largely wide open range land that will be kept off limits for -- for the time being.

Here at the camp side, the firefighters this morning awakened to a very cold morning, their fourth cold morning in a row. And that is a very good sign, because it means that the fire slows down.

As the firefighters get ready here, they receive briefings from the fire bosses, from the meteorologists, from the fire behavior specialists, and then they set out in their trucks, trying to get ahead of the fire.

What they are doing here, when they leave here, they go 20, 30, 40 miles to the fire lines, and start to work the fire lines, setting out sometimes small backfires, sometimes putting trenches in front of the fires to try to at least nip these fires here and there to try to slow them down.

There is a certain amount of economic impact to be had here in this small area. This is what they call the western rim of the little town of Darby. While the land owner here on this matter was receiving about $1,000 a day for what we're guessing is something on the order of maybe 15-20 acres of land. We also noticed that, in the town of Hamilton, about 23 miles from here, there is a certain amount of purchasing going on locally by the supply people here. I saw, at the K-Mart store, I saw a number of Forest Service people wheeling out huge shopping carts full of paper products. So there is a certain amount of money being spread around here.

Natalie, back to you.

ALLEN: Well, that is probably the exception, in a state that has to close down land. It has got to be really taking a tourist hit overall. Are there any numbers of how this is hurting Montana?

LEFEVRE: This local purchasing is really a very small amount. And you are right. The dollar figures will be slow in coming because they are only beginning to realize how widespread it is. River rafting tours, hiking tours, camping tours, the fly fishing industry is very big in this part of Montana, and a lot of that has been reduced or eliminated. Not all, there are still some private lands that are still open. And folks who are going to plan on vacations here should indeed call ahead.

But it will be months before that is calculated. It may be winter time by the time the state gets its figures together on the tourism loss here -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Surely a disaster on such a grand scale. Greg Lefevre, thanks so much, from Darby, Montana.

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