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Hundreds Flee Wildfires in Glacier National Park

Hundreds of hikers, campers and park employees were told to leave part of Glacier National Park (search) on Thursday because of wildfires that forced the closure of most of the western half of the park.

Park officials closed the west entrance and evacuated the Lake McDonald Valley (search) because of a fire two miles from the entrance in the Flathead National Forest (search), park information officer Punky Moore said.

"The purpose of the evacuation is to make sure the fire doesn't get behind people and they don't have a way to get out of the park," Moore said. How many people were affected wasn't immediately known.

The fire had burned 1,945 acres and had burned into the park at the base of the Apgar Mountains, fire information officer Lisa Kiebler said.

Inside the park, another blaze dubbed the Trapper Creek Fire (search) nearly doubled in size overnight and closed part of a road, Moore said. The fire was estimated at 3,600 acres Wednesday, but had grown to at least 6,000 acres Thursday morning.

The national park covers more than 1 million acres in northwest Montana near the Canadian border.

In central Idaho, flames overran and killed two firefighters who had just rappelled to the ground to clear a helicopter landing zone Wednesday.

"They got caught in a fireball," county Coroner Mike Mitchell said. "It was very quick."

The Forest Service expressed their condolences to families of Jeff Allen, 24, and Shane Heath, 22. Allen became a seasonal firefighter in 1999. Heath, a Boise State University student, had been a wildland firefighter for four years.

All firefighters were pulled from the blaze in the Salmon-Challis National Forest (search) and an investigation of the deaths was under way. It was unclear when the fight to contain the blaze would resume.

"Firefighter safety is the No. 1 priority," Forest Supervisor George Matejko said. "The stand-down ensures that those involved on the fire have an opportunity to deal with the impact of the tragedy."

The forest fire, about 130 miles south of Missoula, Mont., was caused by lightning and first reported Sunday. Hot temperatures and wind blew it up from 120 acres to about 1,000 acres, officials said.

Allen and Heath were the eighth and ninth firefighters assigned to wildfires to die since February nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Only one of the previous deaths was by fire, while the others were helicopter crashes and accidents.

U.S. Forest Service (search) spokeswoman Erin O'Connor said the deaths were under investigation.

"The dryness of the trees and other shrubs, the high temperatures of over 100 degrees for weeks, the relative humidity down to around 16 percent — all those factors contribute to very extreme fire behavior," O'Connor said.

Another Idaho blaze grew to 14,000 acres in the Boise National Forest and was about eight miles away from the small town of Atlanta on Thursday. Isolated summer cabins were evacuated, and up to 80 residences are considered threatened.

The National Interagency Fire Center said there were 45 large fires burning in the West, with 376,564 acres of active wildfires. Other states with large fires included Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.