SALMON, Idaho – Two firefighters battling the Cramer wildfire (search) in central Idaho died Tuesday night after they were overrun by flames, officials said Wednesday.
The two were members of the Salmon-Challis National Forest (search) helitack crew fighting the fire 17 miles west of Shoup. Their names were not released.
A Forest Service statement said an investigation team has been assigned and all firefighters have been taken off the fire line for safety reasons.
The blaze also forced the evacuation of the nearby Long Tom Lookout (search). The lightning-caused fire was reported Sunday evening. No further details about the deaths were immediately available.
Thirty-four firefighters had been assigned to the blaze, which blew up over the Salmon valley Tuesday, from its original 220 acres to about 1,000 acres of timber.
"It's bad right now. The fire behavior today was incredible," said Gail Baer, fire information officer with the Salmon-Challis National Forest. "I don't want to scare people away, but they really should pay attention before heading out to go play in the woods."
Crews did manage to get the upper hand on two other Idaho fires.
The Tobias Fire, which has charred nearly 15,000 acres near Leadore, was reported contained.
And the 4,000-acre Harkness fire near McCammon, which destroyed two homes and several buildings, was reported 80 percent contained.
In Brusett, Mont., neighbors armed with water tanks on their truckbeds pitched in to help protect each others' homes as a cluster of range fires swept across more than 117,000 acres of north-central Montana.
Farmers and ranchers have played a big role in fighting the flames and gotten little sleep since wildfires were sparked last week. Residents have built fire lines, watered down yards and helped neighbors pack up valuable belongings.
Incident commander Jim Gray said Wednesday could be another difficult day, with high temperatures in the area and flames predicted to be buffeted by southwest winds.
"It doesn't appear we're going to get much help out of the weather, just problems," he said Tuesday evening. The fire has so far charred some 117,570 acres, or 184 square miles.
Hundreds of firefighters had so far succeeded in protecting buildings, including the farm complex where the anti-government Montana Freemen (search) holed up in a 1996 confrontation with federal agents.
A single outbuilding burned, but 75 buildings were at risk, officials said Tuesday.
Tempers also were rising. Some residents blamed the Bureau of Land Management for one fire, and criticized the interagency management team that was directing more than 400 firefighters in the effort to corral the fires.
The fire started on bureau land and could have been stopped at 20 acres, but bureau authorities would not allow residents to help suppress it, said Ross Childers, who had two ranches in danger.
He estimated he had lost 8,000 acres of pasture for his cattle. He did not know if any cattle had died. Childers' ranches, like many in the area, include some land leased from the bureau.
Trudie Olson, public affairs director for the bureau in Billings, said she was not familiar with Childers' complaints. She said that the bureau has aggressively attacked all new fires when spotted.
Wildfires this year have charred some 1.46 million acres nationwide. That remains a quieter-than-average wildfire season, however; on average, 2.05 million acres have been blackened by this date. And fire managers in most states reported progress on digging containment lines and protecting rural homesteads.
The National Interagency Fire Center (search) said there were 49 large fires burning in the West, with 359,380 acres of active wildfires. States with large fires included Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
In California, a blaze that has charred more than 18,000 acres and burned two mobile homes in northeast San Diego County was expected to be contained by Wednesday.
In Wyoming, firefighters worked Tuesday to protect six homes about a mile from a 1,400-acre blaze in Johnson County and three ranches about a half-mile from the flames. Another blaze near the Montana state line had charred more than 6,000 acres.
In Colorado, about 20 people were evacuated from seven homes Tuesday night when a wildfire spread quickly to the edge of the community of Glenwood Springs, about 130 miles west of Denver. It was heading away from the houses by late Tuesday, Fire Chief Mike Piper said.