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Western Wildfires: Blaze Expansion Forces More Evacuations; Crews Find Possible Ally in Cooler Weather

Aired August 28, 2000 - 1:09 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: More folks are leaving their homes in Montana after a new wildfire grew to 2,000 acres in just two hours over the weekend. Eighty-four large fires are burning 1.7 million acres across the West and in Florida.

CNN's Greg Lefevre joins us now live from Hamilton, Montana where firefighters may finally have found an ally in the weather -- Greg.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you said that right, Bill -- I'm sorry -- Lou. The circumstance here is that it has dawned cool and cold here in Hamilton, Montana. And when that happens, that means firefighter can get up in the air faster, they can get their helicopters in the air faster so they can see the fire and begin to do some fire suppression effort.

The actual terminology that they used this morning was "advantageous to fire suppression." That's bureaucratese for "counterattack," and the firefighters are going at it furiously this morning.

When we see -- when we look at the aerials, you can see here at the Scalcaho (ph) Complex fire that the fire has burned clear up several canyons. It has avoided some homes, thanks to the efforts of the firefighters. These fires burn day and night and so, too, the fire suppression effort goes on 24 hours a day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): The new night shift in western Montana: North Carolina crew No. 40 in the Scalcaho Forest. High winds that afternoon blew up parts of the fire. Tonight's objectives: slow the advance, burn out dry brush ahead of the fire.

RUSSELL HARRIS, NORTH CAROLINA NO. 40: And we try to keep the fire from climbing the Douglas fir trees and all this so it wouldn't cross the line.

LEFEVRE: Every crew posts lookouts, peering into the darkness.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's so much smoke and dust in the air your visibility's limited.

LEFEVRE: Watching out for falling trees and flying embers. HARRIS: A flying ember blows across the line, be it right in front of you or a mile away, that you're possibly going to have head fire coming at you from behind. The head fire, meaning a running fire that could run the crew down.

LEFEVRE: On into the night, their work is illuminated only by their helmet lamps, or by the fire they're trying to kill.

Hours into the shift, the temperature begins to drop.

HARRIS: You know, you go from 85 degrees to 40 overnight, and you've been sweating all night and your shirt and your jacket's wet and its like you're laying there in 20 degrees.

LEFEVRE: In the twilight before dawn, tired and cold, the North Carolina 40 sees for the first time what it has accomplished. The ground is black, but the trees are still green. The advancing fire will have a tough time getting through here.

Now it's back to camp to bed down for the day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEFEVRE: Those firefighters are now sleeping not far from here; some of them in the grand stands because it's in the shady area, and some of them out in a meadow just about 100 yards this way. They average about two to four hours of sleep a day. Can you imagine going day and night with work like that?

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

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