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Montana wildfire forces evacuations on reservation

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Aug. 3, 2012: A church group from Indiana sleeps outside the Saint Labre Mission after evacuating a bible school at the Morning Star Baptist Church, fleeing the fire in Lame Deer, Mont. (AP/Billings Gazette)

As a wildfire's flames raced to the edge of Lame Deer's town limits, police drove the streets with loudspeakers blaring orders for residents of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation community to grab their most important belongings and get out.

Buses were waiting to carry people from danger area, which on Thursday night suddenly meant the entire town of 2,000. Desi Small-Rodriguez, a volunteer with the tribe's disaster and emergency services department, recalled the chaotic scene as the Chalky Fire threatened to burn down the seat of the southeastern Montana reservation.

"A lot of people were walking with their belongings, getting on buses, trying to find rides, getting out as told," Small-Rodriguez said Friday.

About 250 people stayed at a Red Cross shelter 25 miles away at the St. Labre Mission. Others took shelter with friends and relatives on other parts of the reservation. Those with no place to go camped out on lawns in nearby communities, or they just refused to leave.

The fire had already burned two homes earlier in the day, then wind from a cold front whipped up the flames and drove the fire straight toward town. Things looked grim to Carol Raymond, Rosebud County's head of disaster and emergency services, who had driven from Forsyth to see firsthand what was happening.

"I figured the whole town of Lame Deer would go up in flames," Raymond said.

Firefighters worked overnight trying to keep the flames back. At one point early Friday, the fire jumped Highway 212, but firefighters contained it with a back burn of the surrounding area, and the wildfire skirted around town without destroying any buildings or causing any injuries, Small-Rodriguez said.

On Friday, the smoke was choking the town, but rain was assisting firefighters. A red-flag warning was to be in effect until evening, and firefighters prepared for gusty winds and possible thunderstorms. The mandatory evacuation remained in effect.

The Chalky Fire is part of the Rosebud complex -- the second major fire to affect the Northern Cheyenne Reservation this summer. June's Ash Creek Fire burned at least 18 homes, forced evacuations and caused $20,000 worth of damage to tribal property.

The Rosebud complex of six wildfires measured about 205 square miles Friday morning.

The Chalky Fire is the largest in the complex, at more than 156 square miles, and was uncontained. Besides the two homes lost, a third structure burned in one subdivision and the blaze was still threatening another subdivision.

To the west, the Crow Reservation was dealing with its own wildfires. Residents east of Crow Agency also had to flee their homes when strong wind gusts pushed the Sarpy Hill complex of fires toward their homes. The fire burned one home around midnight.

The complex of fires measured 80 square miles Thursday but has grown since its overnight run, fire officials said.

Meanwhile, in Northern California, higher humidity and calmer winds helped crews make progress against a wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The Salt Creek Fire near the community of O'Brien about 16 miles north of Redding has consumed 900 acres, burned an outbuilding and forced the evacuation of about 100 homes. It was 30 percent contained Friday morning.

U.S. Forest Service representative Don Ferguson said some residents were allowed to return to their homes Thursday, but most of the evacuations remained in place. The fire also was threatening 20 commercial buildings and 100 other structures.

The blaze began in the median of Interstate 5 Wednesday and is believed to have been caused by human activity.

Also in Northern California, more than 400 firefighters were struggling to contain a fire that was threatening dozens of trailer homes and other structures in the Plumas National Forest.

The Chips Fire has scorched more than 4 square miles near Belden, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, fire officials said. On Thursday night, it was only 5 percent contained, and full containment was not expected until Aug. 15.

The blaze that began July 29 has been fueled by high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.

Elsewhere in the West:
  -- In Idaho, a wildfire burning in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness has scorched nearly 29 square miles and was being battled by more than 200 firefighters, fire officials said. The Halstead Fire was burning in the wilderness 18 miles northwest of the small resort town of Stanley. The fire ignited a week ago from a lightning strike and is uncontained.
  -- In Washington, the state mobilized resources to help local firefighters at a fire burning 1,000 acres in the state's southeast corner and at a fire burning 15 square miles of land in central Washington. No structures were threatened.
  -- In Wyoming, fire danger was high again across much of the southern and central part of the state. Gusty west winds were expected Friday as a cold front moved in. The National Weather Service said the front would arrive in central Wyoming in the afternoon and the southern part of the state in the evening. A few showers and thunderstorms also were expected.
  -- In Utah, several major wildfires that scorched mountainsides last month have triggered a heightened concern for flash floods. The National Weather Service said southern Utah is at risk for flash floods over the next several days. Forecaster Nanette Hosenfeld said officials also were concerned about flooding in northern Utah County because the Quail Fire there burned near hundreds of homes last month.

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