MISSOULA, Mont. — With firefighters still gaining on blazes that have blackened thousands of acres across Montana and Idaho, officials are beginning to shift some of their resources to rehabilitating the scarred landscape.
Some of the firefighters being pulled off blazes in western Montana are being reassigned for duties that include planting new seeds and clearing fallen timber and debris from natural drainage canals in the burned forests.
"With the devastation the fires have caused this summer, you can imagine what a massive task that's going to be," Dave Daniels, an information officer with the Forest Service in Missoula, said Thursday.
Montana still had 24 large fires burning on 645,289 acres as of Thursday. In Idaho, nearly 651,000 acres of forest and range land were on fire. Nationwide, fires have burned more than 6.6 million acres so far this year.
But a week of cooler temperatures and rain has helped firefighters make significant progress. It has also allowed the Forest Service to begin demobilizing some of the firefighters.
About 1,800 firefighters had passed through a demobilization center in Missoula as of Thursday, Daniels said. Many are being sent to fight other blazes, including fires in Texas. Others are returning home, while some are staying behind to help with forest rehabilitation.
Special teams of biologists, botanists and wildlife experts have been arriving in the state to lead those efforts, Daniels said.
"Typically after fires of this size, a team of experts will come in . . . and take a look and try to make some judgments about what it will take to stabilize the land and put it on the road to recovery," he said.
The work includes aerial mapping to help measure the severity of fire damage at a variety of locations.
Meanwhile, more than 1,400 firefighters are still working to contain some of the most devastating fires in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana.
The Valley fires, a group of about 10 fires burning southeast of Darby, have burned more than 212,000 acres and were about 60% contained, incident commander Joe Stutler said. Northwest of Hamilton, firefighters reported significant progress on the 11,486-acre Blodgett Trailhead fire. It was 85% contained, and officials predicted complete containment by Sunday.
In Idaho, firefighters pushed up containment on the Burgdorf Junction fire, reaching 80%. Drier, warmer weather allowed crews to reach most areas of the 64,514-acre fire. The Clear Creek fire--in the Salmon-Challis National Forest near the Montana border--reached 75% containment. Remote weather stations reported more than a half-inch of rain.
The ground remained dry under the trees, but fire managers hoped shorter days, cooler nights and higher humidity would help, but crews worried the weekend's forecast could stir up the flames. Forecasters predicted warm, dry weather to move into parts of Idaho, which had Clear Creek fire manager Paul Hefner of Boise trying to get an edge on stamping out hot spots.
"This rain tends to give you a false sense of security," Hefner said. "It's not going to get as hot, dry and windy but it's still going to be warm and dry and if you don't pay enough attention you can be surprised."