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Archive for Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Willie’ fire becomes Montana’s top priority

August 30, 2000

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— A fast-moving wildfire closed the scenic Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone National Park and threatened up to 150 houses Monday, some of them million-dollar trophy homes in the Montana woods.

The fire near Red Lodge became the No. 1 firefighting priority in Montana, but ground crews with shovels might not be on the job before today because so many other blazes across the West are demanding their attention.

"Even if we got everything we want, it may not be enough," Forest Service Ranger Rand Herzberg told exasperated residents. "This is going to be a tough one, folks."

Les Linn, 76, said he packed up and got out of his house when the fire was about half a mile away.

"We loaded up the back of the pickup," Linn said. "The thing I made sure I got first were my guns."

The Willie fire so named because Willie Nelson was headlining a music festival in Red Lodge started Sunday when a motorcycle crashed and caught fire a few miles south of town on the Beartooth Highway that leads into the northeastern corner of Yellowstone. The fire quickly grew to 3,000 acres on the west side of the highway, which was closed on Sunday.

Many tourists had to find another way out of the park after the closure of the 65-mile route to Red Lodge.

"We're moving everybody back toward Yellowstone Park, telling them to turn around," said a spokeswoman for the Montana Highway Patrol.

Flames were just feet from some of the evacuated houses.

"One side of the road has homes, the other side has fire," said fire information officer Scott Fitzwilliams.

A few of the houses evacuated were worth as much as $1 million, but most were middle-class homes, said Sheriff Luke Schroder.

For a while, the fire six miles south of Red Lodge was moving toward the resort town of some 1,875 people, but it changed direction with a shift in the wind.

Some hospital and nursing home patients were moved from Red Lodge to Billings as a precaution. However, Red Lodge schools planned to open as scheduled today.

Elsewhere, a firestorm in an Idaho forest destroyed most of the buildings at a guest ranch, and a second guest ranch was ordered evacuated.

Fire lines were widened in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where a blaze has consumed 64,900 acres. Gusts reached 40 mph Monday at Rapid City, about 25 miles northeast of the fire.

Authorities established a 24-hour hot line for people with information on anything suspicious in the area of Jewel Cave National Monument, where the fire started on Thursday. Officials have said an arsonist may be to blame.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial was at least 13 miles from the fire's eastern edge.

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