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By Tristan 

Cold front helps firefighters in western Montana


HELENA(AP) — A cold front moved in to the region Wednesday, providing welcome relief to firefighters in western Montana but bringing strong wind gusts and red-flag fire conditions to the south-central and southeastern parts of the state.

The front meant temperatures in the 60s Wednesday morning near Bonner, where fire crews battled a 3,700-acre wildfire. The crews planned to take advantage of the cool, moist conditions to directly attack the fire's northern and eastern flanks.

The fire was 45 percent contained and has cost $3.3 million since it was discovered Aug. 22 behind a subdivision seven miles east of Missoula. Its cause is under investigation.

AP Photo/The Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer

Firefighters from several local, state and federal agencies gather for a morning briefing before heading out to battle a fire along Buffalo Trail north of Laurel, Mont. on Tuesday.

The front is expected to bring rain and even snow to higher elevations in northwestern Montana. It has meant gusty and erratic winds that may test fire lines built to isolate the large fires burning in central and eastern parts of Montana and in northern Wyoming.

Fire crews working to contain a 2,500-acre blaze north of Laurel braced for 30 to 35 mph winds expected to arrive with the approaching front. The wildfire is uncontained since being sparked by lightning Monday, but 135 firefighters kept it from major growth Tuesday, fire officials said.

The wind also will reach a 51,460-acre complex of fires about 30 miles from Ashland, but those blazes are 96 percent contained and fire crews anticipate just mop-up and rehabilitation work Wednesday. The Type II incident team in charge of the response is expected to demobilize Friday morning.

That fire has cost nearly $3.7 million to fight, fire officials estimated.

In northern Wyoming, a 6,200-acre fire was 90 percent contained, but fire officials there said they were concerned about Wednesday's wind threat. Incident Commander Joe Lowe said in a statement that it will be a test of their efforts, but fire officials are confident their work will hold up.

The front is expected to create more favorable conditions across the region Thursday before another dry front moves in Friday afternoon, said Northern Rockies Coordination Center meteorologist Bryan Henry.

The temperatures should remain cool and the humidity should be high enough to keep the fires at bay, he said.

Long-range forecast models show the potential for a ridge of high-pressure to develop after Sept. 7, which could bring hot, dry conditions once more, Henry said.

"For areas that don't get a lot of precipitation from this event, they could get back into the game for a continued late (fire) season," he said. "That's out there lurking on the horizon."


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