Western Wildfires Reach into Montana

Seasonal fires are scorching many areas in the American Northwest. Cory Conner, the assistant fire chief of Big Timber, is currently fighting fires in Montana. He gives Alex Chadwick an update.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

There are wildfires burning in Nevada, and Washington, and Oregon, and in Montana - which is where we're going to talk with Cory Conner. He's an assistant fire chief. Cory Conner, tell me, where is this fire burning? It's quite large, more than 300 square miles at this point?

Mr. CORY CONNER (Assistant fire chief, Montana): Yeah. It's basically the perimeter would be like McCleod, Montana, Big Timber, Greycliff, Reed Point.

CHADWICK: Between Bozeman and Billings, kind of along the interstate there.

Mr. CONNER: That's correct. It's burned to the interstate in areas. It's right in the middle between Bozeman and Billings.

CHADWICK: Well, what are you doing? I mean, 300 square miles on fire, I don't know what the heck could you do?

Mr. CONNER: Right now we're trying to concentrate on priority spots. We've got a pretty good containment around still a lot of country area, trying to put containment lines in. And, if needed, we have to backfire to make sure those containment lines hold so it doesn't get into more residences, and more structures, and more timberland.

CHADWICK: Have you lost any structures so far and have any people been hurt?

Mr. CONNER: As for people, that's our top priority and as far as any serious injuries, no. We have lost 26 primary structures.

CHADWICK: I've heard about and read about on news wires a bee problem. That is wild bees are attacking the firefighters?

Mr. CONNER: Yeah. They're quite aggressive right now. I'm not sure if the fire is causing them to be more active or just the time of year going into winter. At one structure that initially we were protecting, they were just all over us. We're getting approximately 30 bee stings a day. I do know there was one person that was hospitalized because of that.

CHADWICK: So how many people do you have fighting this fire now? And what is the situation today, Friday, heading into the weekend?

Mr. CONNER: We've got approximately 200 volunteer people fighting it and then there's about 1,000 of the instant team that are actively fighting this fire.

CHADWICK: So, 1,200 people.

Mr. CONNER: Yeah.

CHADWICK: And what are the prospects for getting things under control, do you think?

Mr. CONNER: Last night they did a burnout to contain the - it would be the west side of this fire. The east side's looking pretty good. They're worried about wind picking it up and stoking the hot spots there are. So they've got people patrolling and putting out hot spots, but on the west side is where the most active burning is right now. So they're shifting priorities. Last night they did a fairly successful burnout along the Elk Creek Main Boulder Road Drainage.

CHADWICK: I gather that conditions are extremely dry there.

Mr. CONNER: Yeah. We've never seen conditions like this. For an example, the lumber you buy at lumberyards has approximately 15 percent moisture in the lumber you buy, and that's after they dry it. The timber up here right now is running about 8 percent. So it's a lot dryer than what you can even buy at the lumberyard. And on top of that, September usually starts having some rain and burning potential going down. It's done just the opposite this year and has spiked up and it's still climbing right now.

CHADWICK: Cory Conner, an assistant fire chief fighting the fires in Montana. Cory thank you and good luck.

Mr. CONNER: Thank you.

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