Major wildfires threatening towns in Montana, California

LAME DEER, Mont. — Wildfires in Montana threatened rural towns and ranchland, and victims of a California blaze returned to their incinerated town even as the region faced another round of dangerous weather.

Firefighters and residents have scrambled to save hundreds of homes as flames advance across the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.

An evacuation order was lifted Friday morning for about 600 people in and around the town of Ashland, just east of the reservation, signaling progress on the blaze that had burned out of control since Sunday.

But the fire was still burning near the tribal headquarters town of Lame Deer, where a mandatory evacuation remained in place, and a second fire was threatening from the opposite direction.

The two fires combined have burned 275 square miles (710 square kilometers) this week, so far sparing homes but causing extensive damage to pasture lands that ranchers depend on to feed their cows and horses.

As the blaze raged across rugged hills and narrow ravines, tribal member Darlene Small helped her grandson move about 100 head of cattle to a new pasture, only to relocate them twice more as the flames from the Richard Spring fire bore down. An extreme drought that’s blanketing the West has made matters worse by stunting vegetation untouched by fire.

“They’ve got to have pasture where there’s water. If there’s no water, there’s no good pasture,” Small said. She said it was a particularly hard hit where some ranchers already depending on surplus grass after a fire burned them off their regular pasture last year.

Fire officials said that gusts and low humidity were creating hazardous conditions as flames devoured brush, short grass, and timber. The same conditions turned California’s Dixie Fire into a furious blaze that last week burned down much of the small town of Greenville in the northern Sierra Nevada. The fire that began a month ago has destroyed some 550 homes.

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