Firefighters Make Progress Against Montana Blazes

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Firefighters battling Montana's biggest blazes have made some dramatic gains, and fire officials were optimistic about their progress Monday.

"Across the board, the firefighters you talk to today say they're having a good day," said Julena Campbell of the Northern Rockies Interagency Information Center (search) in Missoula.

"But of course that doesn't mean we can sit around and rest, either. There's a lot of work left," she said.

The general optimism was tempered by forecasts of warm, dry weather and the potential for more wind in coming days.

Wildfires have blackened some 350,000 acres of Montana this summer, and several hundred people remain either evacuated or on alert that they may need to evacuate.

During the weekend, cooler, damper weather and low fire activity gave crews at least a few days to strengthen their defenses.

Three major fire groups in Glacier National Park (search) were all at least 60 percent contained as of Monday, said Sandy Kratville, another information officer in Missoula. And in the past week, seven major fires had been contained.

About 35 miles outside Missoula, some of the roughly 200 people evacuated because of a 28,000-acre wildfire were allowed to return. The blaze came within a half-mile of their homes, but crews made progress building lines between the homes and the fire.

In Wyoming, a burnout that closed the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park again was progressing well Monday night, prompting crews to predict the entrance could be reopened as early as Wednesday evening.

The burnout was set along 1.5 miles of the road to cut off a pair of wildfires on the park's east side.

"As soon as we get done with that we'll move real fast toward containment," said fire spokesman Greg Thayer.

The east entrance, one of five into Yellowstone, had been closed for more than a week because of the fires. It was reopened for limited traffic during the weekend but closed again Monday, sending travelers heading to the park from Cody, Wyo., on a 29-mile detour.

Large fires also were active Monday in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Texas and Washington, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. So far this year, wildfires have blackened 2.5 million acres, compared to 6.1 million at the same time last year, the center said.

Eight firefighters returning home to Oregon after a two-week assignment on a blaze in Idaho were killed Sunday when their van collided with a truck near Vale, Ore.

Before Sunday, 19 people assigned to wildfires had died on duty this year, according to Tracey Powers, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.