MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
Fire crews were shoring up defenses around a Montana ski hill on Thursday, taking advantage of a lull in winds that had pushed a large wildfire to within a half-mile (800 meters) of the resort's summit. The nearly 15-square-mile (39-square-kilometer) fire burning through a canyon in the Beartooth Mountains near the town of Red Lodge has forced people to flee the ski hill and 90 nearby homes. An evacuation order was lifted late Thursday, although residents were warned to remain on alert. On Wednesday, fierce winds sent embers flying toward the ski area, lighting numerous small fires that prompted authorities to ask employees of the town's namesake resort to leave. The winds subsided Wednesday evening and Thursday but were forecast to return Friday. Crews were digging a narrow fire line down the back side of the ski hill that officials hoped would stop the fire's six-day march down a remote, thickly timbered canyon straight toward the town of Red Lodge and its resort. "The fire has burned to the point now where people can see the flames," Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz said. "It's become a little bit more real for everybody." The fire, 10 percent contained Thursday, was about six miles (10 kilometers) from Red Lodge, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Billings. Residents of 200 homes aside from those already evacuated have been told to be ready to leave. As tanker aircraft dropped loads of fire retardant in front of the blaze, Grizzly Peak resident Shirley Overton praised the firefighters' efforts. "They've really been bombing it," she said. "It's still flaming up there, but they've been on it day and night." Fire officials said sprinklers were being installed Thursday to spray down the resort's lodges and other buildings augmenting snowmaking guns that have been running for several days to keep the resort damp. Five summer cabins and three other structures have burned since the blaze began Saturday. The cause remains under investigation. Outside California's Yosemite National Park, a 53-square-mile (137-square-kilometer) blaze sparked last week by a target shooter was 45 percent contained Thursday as firefighters shored up fire lines around residential areas along its southern and eastern edges. It has destroyed 21 homes, caused hundreds of people to evacuate and for days had spit up clouds of ash that obscured the park's granite peaks. Residents of about 200 evacuated homes were allowed to return Wednesday, but people chased from another 150 homes were still waiting to go back Thursday. More than 2,000 blazes have scorched 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) in California already this year, as compared to the nearly 1,720 square miles (4,455 square kilometers) that burned in 2007, when blazes raged across Southern California, said Alisha Herring, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire season, however, is not even half over. "Typically we don't see wildland fires of this magnitude until much later in the season," Herring said. "But with the dry fuel conditions that we have throughout the state we could see similar situations arise again until we get a significant amount of rain."