A forest fire burned to within half a mile of the Old Faithful geyser complex in Yellowstone National Park Wednesday, forcing tourists to evacuate, but firefighters said they may be able to save the towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City.
Some 1,200 weary firefighting crews made "backburns" near the towns in order to burn up potential fuel for the 61,300-acre Storm Creek fire. Buildings also were being sprayed with foam and water."It looks pretty good," said Vickie Fox at the fire information office. "It's a lot better than we thought it was going to be. Last night we did backburning from Silver Gate to Cooke City. We are doing it to prevent the fire from moving down into town.
"We haven't lost anything, and right now things look pretty good. There's no structure damage at this point."
Only about a half-dozen residents, including gasoline station operator Bill Sommers, were left in Cooke City. Sommers said the fire came to within 11/2 miles of town Tuesday night before dying down about 1 a.m.
"It doesnt really look too bad right now," he said. "They backburned around the upper part of town this morning. That was pretty spectacular."
The 142,000-acre North Fork fire burned to within about a half-mile of the Old Faithful complex, and occupants of the 320-room Old Faithful Inn evacuated orderly.
"People are actually out watching the geyser this morning, but we expect by noon the whole area will be closed," park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said.
Other fires burned toward homes and apple orchards in Washington and spewed out smoke that drifted over vast areas of the fire-ravaged West, where nearly 1.25 million acres were ablaze.
Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden declared a state of emergency Tuesday that allowed the Park
County sheriff to force residents to abandon their homes and businesses in Silver Gate and Cooke City, where someone with a wry sense of humor added the letter "D" to the city limits sign, making it read "Cooked City."
A long line of pumper trucks sprayed streams of white foam through the smoky, yellowish pall onto rustic buildings and into the tall pines that line the only escape road. Officials said if the road is closed by the onrushing wall of flames, the only way out for the firefighters will be by helicopter.
The entire area was enveloped in a thick blanket of smoke, and the air was filled with ash and soot, forcing many to breathe through scarves.
The worst fires in the park's history were confounding the traditional tactic of fighting forest fires - cutting clear areas to stop the spread of flames - as the gusty winds sent sparks and embers leaping over the buffer zones.
Park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt said the unpredictable weather was creating the worst odds ever faced by firefighters in the park.
"Area managers acknowledge these are the most extreme fire conditions, the likes of which no one has ever seen in this century," noting that "significant firefighting techniques have not been successful and it will require significant precipitation to put them out."
One million acres have burned since June in the Yellowstone complex of parks and forests in the area where Wyoming, Montana and Idaho meet, and it has cost more than $100 million to fight the fires. About 9,600 firefighters were on the lines, including National Guardsmen and about 2,400 regular Army troops.
Firefighters in central Washington made a line of tanker trucks Tuesday to fight off a 30,000-acre wildfire that burned one home, jumped a fire line and was headed down a mountainside toward several more houses and a fish hatchery.
Farmers turned on irrigation systems to save several of the state's famed apple orchards from encroaching fires.
Paul Hart of the U.S. Forest Service said the 30,000-acre blaze in central Washington jumped a fire line and began creeping down the hillside into the Entiat Valley.
"The fire line was higher up on the hillside, but the fire jumped it and is now burning down the hill," he said. "It tries to burn up the hill, but debris keeps rolling back down and bringing the fire with it."
The fire started during the weekend, quickly exploding from 150 acres to 30,000 acres Tuesday. The fast-moving blaze destroyed one home as it moved to within 4 miles of Entiat.
"I'm still in a state of shock," cried Loetta Wilson when she returned home to find only a charred chimney. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
With nearly 50,000 acres of eastern Washington in flames, officials ordered all public and private land under the control of the Department of Natural Resources closed to commercial and recreational use.
Logging and other commercial uses were banned earlier over the entire state.