Two firefighters killed while battling wild blaze

BOISE, Idaho -- Two firefighters were overrun by flames and killed soon after they were dropped by helicopter to battle a fast-moving blaze in a national forest in central Idaho, officials said Wednesday.

The fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest about 130 miles south of Missoula, Mont., was caused by lightning and first reported Sunday night. Hot temperatures and wind blew it up from 120 acres to about 1,000 acres Tuesday night, when the two died, officials said.

They are the eighth and ninth firefighters to die since February nationwide, said Alan Hoffmeister, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Only one was a burning death, while the others were helicopter crashes and accidents.

The firefighters had just rappelled to the ground when they were overtaken by flames. Their identities were not released by Wednesday afternoon.

All firefighters were pulled from the blaze and an investigation of the deaths was under way. A federal forest fire management team was sent to the fire, but it was unclear when the fight to contain the blaze would resume.

"Firefighter safety is the number one priority," forest supervisor George Matejko said Wednesday. "The stand-down ensures that those involved on the fire have an opportunity to deal with the impact of the tragedy."

The firefighters were part of a "helitack" crew. Such teams travel by helicopter to provide initial response to wildland fires, sometimes dropping crew members on the ground to battle small blazes before they grow into large fires. The crews are deployed to remote, steep and extremely smoky environments.

Elsewhere in the West, neighbors armed with water tanks on their truck beds pitched in to help protect each others' homes as a cluster of range fires swept across more than 117,000 acres in north-central Montana.

Residents have built fire lines, watered down yards and helped neighbors pack up valuable belongings since the fires erupted last week.

Six to eight outbuildings burned overnight and four head of cattle were confirmed dead, the first confirmed cattle losses. Temperatures rose Wednesday and hundreds of firefighters protected up to 75 buildings, including the farm complex where the anti-government Montana Freemen holed up in a 1996 confrontation with federal agents.

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.

Trudie Olson, public affairs director for the bureau in Billings, 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.

Other states with large fires included Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.