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Rain Helps Some Montana Fires

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RED LODGE, MONT. (AP) — There's a four-letter word circulating in the Montana fire camps that even makes chaplains smile: rain.

Scattered showers that fell on the state's vast wildfires and a forecast for even more rain were expected to put a dent in the drought contributing to the nation's worst fire season in a half-century.

``A couple of days of this and we'd just about have her surrounded,'' Forest Service spokesman Jeff Gildehaus said Wednesday as a steady drizzle fell on a 2,500-acre fire near Red Lodge.

Thirty large fires were burning in an area of 656,991 acres in Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The rain in northwestern and central Montana on Wednesday raised the hopes of firefighters trying to build nearly nine miles of fire line around the Red Lodge blaze and others fighting wildfires across the state.

The moisture helped firefighters attack a new fire north of Helena that had forced five families out of their homes near Wolf Creek late Tuesday. The evacuation order was lifted the next day, and the 400-acre fire was contained Wednesday night.

An 11,000-acre fire at Beaver Creek, west of Yellowstone National Park, also was contained Wednesday, and the rain was a key factor, forest officials said.

Even better news was that more rain was in the forecast through Monday.

``Rainy, cooler days, good cloud cover, all those sorts of things,'' said meteorologist Marty Whitemore, a weather forecaster at the weather bureau office in Missoula.

But fire managers cautioned it would take a lot more to reverse the extreme conditions.

``The big logs, the engines that drive fires, are still dry,'' said Allen Rowley, a fire manager on the Flathead National Forest.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said the fire- and drought-related aid needed by Montana may top $1 billion.

President Clinton on Wednesday signed a request from Gov. Marc Racicot that the state be declared a federal disaster area.

Rick Weiland, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the financial losses in the state warranted the disaster declaration. He said the agency would send an official to Helena to begin coordinating the process of accepting and processing claims.

``The economic injury is just so substantial,'' he said. ``This is such an enormous problem here. I don't think many of us have seen anything like this.''

Across the nation, there were 85 major fires burning on 1.64 million acres, the fire center said. This year, wildfires have charred 6.3 million acres this year, mostly in the hot, dry West.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne on Wednesday asked Clinton to declare his state a federal disaster area. The fire center said Idaho had 25 large fires burning on 717,360 acres.