Red Lodge, Mont. Montana's governor asked President Clinton to declare Montana a federal disaster area Tuesday because of its huge wildfires, as exhausted firefighters looked hopefully toward the weekend and the possibility of rain.
Gov. Marc Racicot told Clinton the state has exhausted its firefighting resources and asked for a federal disaster declaration that would free more federal money. The governor estimated wildfires are costing Montana businesses $3 million a day.
In a visit to one fire camp near Helena, however, the governor heard a forecast for what would be first break in the drought that has helped feed the fires.
Cooler temperatures and scattered rain showers are expected for the Labor Day weekend, said Bob Nester, a National Weather Service forecaster.
"This is the first real weather pattern change in the West for three months," he told Racicot.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said there were 31 large fires burning on 674,000 acres in Montana on Tuesday. The biggest accounted for almost 250,000 acres after the Valley Complex and the Mussigbrod fires in the Bitterroot Valley burned together.
Nationally, there were 84 fires on 1.6 million acres. Idaho reported 26 large fires on nearly 745,000 acres; Wyoming, five large fires on 52,000 acres; and South Dakota one 65,000-acre fire.
So far this year, 6.2 million acres in the United States have burned, the center said.
In Idaho, two New Jersey firefighters were injured when a driverless fire tanker rolled over their tent as they were resting between shifts. One man had a broken leg and two broken ribs, and the other had abdominal swelling and neck pain.
It was the first major accident in the firefighting efforts on the 192,400-acre Clear Creek fire, where more than 1,500 men and women have been scraping firelines for more than a month.
"We've had a very long fire season. We've got the best firefighters in the world, and we could have had more injuries," Salmon-Challis National Forest spokesman Jim Payne said.
The weather already is starting to cool in Montana, and fire camps across the state reported their blazes moving slowly if at all because of the favorable weather.