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Blazes scorching Western states

Strong winds, high temperatures and tinder-dry terrain are fueling fires in South Dakota and elsewhere.

July 10, 2007|From the Associated Press

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — Fire crews hoped for breaks from the weather to help fight blazes fueled by high temperatures, tinder-dry conditions and gusty winds across the West on Monday.

A Hot Springs, S.D., wildfire that killed a man and left more than 30 families homeless spread somewhat to the southwest of the tourist town Monday, but fire officials expected to gain on it in the next day or so.

"My best guess is that we'll make some good ground on the fire," said Joe Lowe, state wildland fire suppression coordinator.

He told night-shift firefighters to be on their toes, however, for a cold front that was expected to sweep through the area overnight. The weather change could bring winds that easily might fan the flames, Lowe said.

Light rain early Monday helped calm the blaze, and Lowe was gaining confidence near day's end that the fire could be encircled. Some firefighters were preparing to return home, but Lowe said that would depend on Monday night's progress.

The lightning-sparked fire had spread through a 14-square-mile area of Fall River County by late Monday.

Among the evacuees taking shelter at a Hot Springs community center was Mary Goulet, who said she and her husband didn't realize the seriousness until it was almost too late. She said she called 911 when fire surrounded the house.

"The flames burned our cars and we couldn't get out," she said. Then a firefighter in protective gear appeared at their door and led them to his firetruck, she said.

It wasn't immediately clear whether their house survived.

Other fires blackened the landscape in California, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Colorado, Montana and Oregon, many of them also started by lightning and fueled by the dry conditions, made worse by a heat wave that sizzled across the West last week.

In addition to the death in South Dakota, smoke from a major Utah fire was blamed for two deaths in a weekend motorcycle accident, and another blaze still active in Utah killed three people on June 29.

Wildfires kept Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona closed Monday, and three small communities in the northern part of the state remained under evacuation orders as gusty winds and hot weather hampered firefighters' efforts.

At least nine fires larger than 100 acres were burning across the state, although most were in remote areas. Many were started by lightning strikes and fed by fuels that were tinder-dry from drought and superheated by a persistent heat wave.

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