Fire devoured the millionth acre of scenic forestland in the Yellowstone National Park area, where fire bosses planned a last-ditch stand Tuesday against the walls of flame bearing down on four smoke-shrouded tourist towns.
In Washington state, the governor Monday called out the National Guard to help firefighters, and in Southern California, brush fires damaged three dozen homes, forced evacuation of more than 250 others and injured two people at a nudist colony as the powder-dry West reeled under an onslaught of wildfires in eight states.The National Weather Service said smoke from the Yellowstone fires had drifted more than 1,200 miles and was polluting the air in Southern California.
At a news conference Monday in Bozeman, Mont., officials said they were deciding how many of the 9,600 firefighters battling fires in the two national parks and six national forests in the area where Idaho, Montana and Wyoming meet would be redeployed in an effort to save Cooke City, Silver Gate and West Yellowstone, Mont., and Island Park, Idaho.
Their big fear, officials said, was that an already dangerous situation could explode if Tuesday's predicted 20-to-30 mph winds with 40 mph gusts materialize.
"We are in an unprecedented, extreme fire situation," said Bob Gibson, superintendent for the Gallatin National Forest. "It will take a significant weather improvement to control these fires - not to put them out, just to control them. We need high humidity, no winds, and hopefully some moisture. That's the only way we can see a chance for control.
"We would anticipate the possibility of increasing the total (burned) acreage, now at more than 1 million, by some 300,000 acres," said Gibson, a member of the committee coordinating the Yellowstone fires.
Don Jackson, a spokesman for the Boise Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, said Tuesday some people were still in the Montana towns, although fire officials had an evacuation plan for them if the fire approaches.
"Under state law in Montana, you're requested but not required to abandon a home," he said. "Without a doubt, there are a few left there."
More than 50 fires this summer have turned half of Yellowstone into charred black hillsides.
The 61,300-acre Storm Creek fire was reported five miles from Silver Gate and Cooke City, from which some 300 people were evacuated Sunday.
Fire boss Pat Kaurnet said his crews expected to be doing "hand-to-hand combat" with the fires if they jump a 2-mile-wide slash of land that firefighters were clearing as a last barrier.
William Penn Mott Jr., director of the National Park Service, Tuesday defended the 16-year "free-burn" policy, which has been criticized by residents living near the 2.2-million acre Yellowstone.
"I think the policy is a good one," he told ABC's "Good Morning America" show. "It cleans up the down material in the park and eliminates the fuel which causes the problem."
But he also added, "If this dry, hot windy weather continues, we will find about half the park burned over. Unless we get a change in the weather, there's no way we can control these fires."