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Chalky Fire Forces Evacuations On Montana's Northern Cheyenne Reservation

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — As a wildfire's flames raced to the edge of Lame Deer 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 the 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. "It was a madhouse at the one gas station in town."

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 blaze straight toward town. Things looked grim to Carol Raymond, Rosebud County's head of disaster and emergency services, who drove 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 to keep the flames back. At one point early Friday, the fire jumped Highway 212, but firefighters contained it with a backburn of the surrounding area, and the wildfire skirted around town without destroying any buildings or causing any injuries, Small-Rodriguez said.

Later Friday, authorities lifted the evacuation order and reopened roads that were closed due to the fire.

Officials warned residents that services were still limited — the emergency room was running with a skeleton crew and the town's store was closed — and they encouraged the sick and elderly to stay away until the danger passed, Small-Rodriguez said.

Lame Deer was out of immediate danger, but with gusty winds and miles of unprotected perimeter on the 156-square-mile Chalky Fire, the situation could change quickly, said fire information officer Mariah Leuschen.

Besides the two homes lost, a third structure burned in one subdivision and the blaze was still threatening another subdivision.

The Chalky Fire is part of the Rosebud complex — the second major fire to affect the 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 complex measured about 205 square miles Friday morning.

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 Sarpy Hill complex 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 on 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, cooler temperatures and higher humidity kept a wildfire in the Plumas National Forest from spreading overnight, although firefighters were concerned about lightning strikes expected over the weekend.

The Chips Fire near Belden, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, was threatening 44 buildings, including 25 homes, although mandatory evacuation orders for some residences were lifted Thursday.

The blaze prompted a smoke advisory in the Reno, Nev., area. The Washoe County Health District urged children, the elderly and those with respiratory or heart ailments to stay indoors.

The wildfire has burned 7 square miles and was 5 percent contained Friday morning, fire officials said. It began July 29 and was being blamed on unspecified human activity.

Elsewhere in the West:

— In Southern California, firefighters were nearing containment of a rural Riverside County wildfire that has burned 355 acres of heavy vegetation and destroyed one home. State fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said the fire near Murrieta was 90 percent contained Friday afternoon.

— 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. It ignited a week ago from a lightning strike and is uncontained.

— In central Washington, the Crane Road Fire was about 80 percent contained late Friday afternoon after burning nearly 19 square miles of grass, brush and scattered timber. The fire broke out Wednesday between Pateros and Brewster. No structures were threatened. Another fire has burned about 1 ½ square miles in the southeast corner of the state.

— In Wyoming, more crews were being sent to help battle the growing Ferris Fire, about 30 miles northeast of Rawlins. The wildfire grew by about 800 acres in one day to more than 3,600 acres by Friday. It was first reported July 27 and is 47 percent contained. The cause is under investigation.

— 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. Officials also were concerned about flooding in northern Utah County because of the Quail Fire, which burned near hundreds of homes.

Last week, some houses in Fountain Green in central Utah were flooded with mud from runoff caused by the Wood Hollow Fire. About 10 flash floods have resulted from the Seeley Fire, which burned 75 square miles inside the Manti-LaSal National Forest.

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