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CNN Today

Western Wildfires: Pentagon Sends in More Troops to Fight Blazes

Aired August 28, 2000 - 2:07 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: A wildfire burning today in the shadow of Mount Rushmore may have been deliberately set. The fire in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest is among 84 wildfires now burning on 1.7 million acres in this country. Authorities set up a 24-hour tip line, hoping for clues about a possible arsonist in this one. Most of the fuel for the Black Hills fire is U.S. Forest Service land. Columns of smoke from the massive wildfire reach six miles into the atmosphere. The worst of the western fires are menacing Montana's Bitterroot Valley again today.

CNN's Greg Lefevre is there -- Greg.

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Lou.

The circumstance here is really not a whole lot better than it's been for the past couple of weeks as far as the fires go, they are huge. For example, the one fire, the Skalkaho fire has now burnt more than 61,000 acres, more than 600 firefighters are on the lines of this fire. And they are working day and night. Firefighters have had as their first priority the protection of structures, homes, barns, and ranches. And so far they've had minimal losses even though these fires have been burning now for nearly a month.

The fire fight here goes on 24 hours a day. Firefighters are working extended shifts, and they could really use the help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEFEVRE (voice-over): With more fires burning than available firefighters to put them out, the Pentagon is sending in the troops. Five hundred fifty soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky went into training on the Valley Fire Complex in western Montana. They will be assigned, just as civilian fire crews, in teams of 20.

SGT. MAJ. KENNY ADAMS, U.S. ARMY: With these military teams broken down as small as they are, I think these crews can be very effective in a lot of different roles.

LEFEVRE: They join more than 16,000 firefighters already on the Western fire lines. Training started in Fort Campbell, with additional instruction here. The soldiers will learn how to operate Forest Service water pumps. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You'll be using ear plugs all of the time.

LEFEVRE: And chain saws and hand tools.

ADAMS: Out here, we are being trained by the firefighters, but our noncommissioned officers are insuring that the soldiers have the right equipment, at the right place at the right time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're here to help the nation in any way we can, and I think it is good that we can come out here and help support the firefighters.

ADAMS: Our soldiers are physically fit, they've got strong backs, but they've never fought fires before. And yet, this training is paramount, you know, for these soldiers to get out there and safely help isolate and contain these fires.

LEFEVRE: The soldiers will be under the individual command of their military officers with operations directed by the U.S. Forest Service.

(on camera): The soldiers will be followed by more Army troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Marines from Camp Lejeune. In all, 2,300 military are expected on fire duty in the next two weeks.

(voice-over): The men and women will most likely start with mop- up duties, a job now considered critical. With winds and lightning reigniting so many fires, no fire is considered out unless it is cold.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEFEVRE: And the task got even more complicated, two new fires over the weekend, one of them just a few miles north of here, near the town of Stevensville, another one half way across the state, not far from the town of Red Lodge. That fire is being called the Willie fire because Willie Nelson, the entertainer, was in concert at Red Lodge. The concert was called off in midstream because the fire was burning nearby. Three thousand acres, that fire was caused by a motorcycle accident late Sunday afternoon. Five air tankers were working the fire until sundown yesterday, more equipment is on the way today. And something like 100 to 150 homeowners have been evacuated from that fire. So far, no structures lost in what is called the Willie fire near the town of Red Lodge.

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

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