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New wildfire near Yellowstone among 82 U.S. blazes
BIG SKY, Montana (CNN) -- As a Montana wildfire expanded quickly near Yellowstone National Park, fire officials Monday reported a record number of large blazes burning in the United States. The total of 82 fires, most of them in the West, is the highest single-day figure of the year. Nearly a third of the blazes are in Montana.
Favorable weather helped firefighters get the upper hand on a few of Montana's many wildfires over the weekend.
But lightning strikes -- combined with hot, dry conditions -- sparked many new fires throughout the West, according to the federal government's National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
"We're going to have to get a major change in the weather before we can see major progress," said NIFC fire information officer Ed Waldapfel. He said most of the West's large fires would continue to burn for the next month or two, dependent on seasonal rain and snowfall to douse the flames completely.
The Beaver Creek fire -- in southern Montana's Gallatin National Forest, near the town of Big Sky -- is one of four new blazes in the state, which now has 23 large fires.
Located near the northwest corner of Wyoming-based Yellowstone, the Beaver Creek fire grew from 80 acres (0.12 square miles) to 3,500 acres (5.5 square miles) on Sunday as strong wind fanned the flames.
Firefighters were removed because of dangerous conditions, and authorities told ranchers in the area west of the Wyoming state line that an evacuation order might be issued.
Some Montana evacuees allowed to go home
Meantime, evacuation orders remained in effect for hundreds of households in southwestern Montana's smoke-filled Bitterroot Valley.
But elsewhere in Montana, hundreds of evacuees were allowed to return home Sunday as low humidity, cooler temperatures and little or no wind allowed firefighters to gain ground on two wildfires south of Helena, as well as a fire in the Big Hole Valley, south of Anaconda.
The region remained smoky, though, due to the light winds and a temperature inversion -- a weather condition that holds cooler air -- and smoke -- closer to the ground.
The situation was a mixed blessing for firefighters, who concentrated on building more containment lines. Although the smoke hampered breathing and visibility, it also choked off oxygen that fires need to keep burning.
"The fires are kind of sitting on themselves, not making any runs," fire information officer Mike Odegard said Sunday.
More than 500 soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, were sent to help with fires in the upper Ninemile Valley near Missoula, where winds began fanning flames that have burned a total of 12,400 acres (19 square miles).
So far this fire season, more than 375,000 acres (585 square miles) of Montana have burned -- an area larger than the city of Los Angeles -- and 169 buildings, including more than 50 homes, have been lost.
Montana is among 13 states where the fire center reported wildland blazes burning out of control. It also lists fires in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
As of Monday, the 82 blazes had blackened a total of 919,710 acres (1,437 square miles), an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Firefighting pilot killed in Nevada
In Nevada, a pilot was killed in Nevada on Sunday when his helicopter crashed while he was making water drops on a wildfire.
The blaze, in a remote area about 50 miles east of Fallon, had charred 38,300 acres (60 square miles) as of Monday and was 45 percent contained.
The pilot was the eighth firefighter killed fighting wildfires this year, and the second Nevada-based firefighter killed in a helicopter crash within 10 days.
"In some cases, we're having to let a lot of acreage burn because we simply don't have the available resources to control the fire without jeopardizing the safety of firefighters," said fire center coordinator Dan O'Brien.
A stretch of Interstate 90 across western Montana was closed for about an hour Sunday, and traffic was escorted through the area for several more hours as winds blew embers across the four-lane highway.
"The fire has, over the last couple of days, been burning very intensely. We can see columns of smoke here in Missoula" about 30 miles away, said Marcia Hogan of the Southwest Montana Coordination Center.
The news was better south of Helena, where people forced to flee 270 homes because of the threat from two fires in the Elkhorn Mountains were allowed to return home Sunday.
"It looks like the main action is not coming toward the valley, but (if there's) a shift in the wind and we're back to the races again," said Jack de Golia of the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters reported progress Sunday in the Bitterroot Valley, where one cluster of fires south of Hamilton had burned 112,000 acres (175 square miles) and another fire, north of Hamilton, had charred 8,990 acres (14 square miles).
Mesa Verde worry: Artifact looters
In southwestern Colorado, where a wildfire at Mesa Verde National Park is under control, park rangers have a new concern -- artifact looters.
The park has only one back-country ranger to patrol for vandals, poachers and looters.
A 5,240-acre (8-square-mile) fire contained Friday and a 23,000-acre (36-square-mile) fire that burned a month earlier led to the discovery of an estimated 2,000 new archaeological sites in the 52,000-acre (81-square-mile) park.
Archaeologists worked with firefighters when fire lines were dug to make sure the sites were protected. But officials worry that protecting the artifacts from opportunists might prove to be more difficult.
The Mesa Verde park is the nation's largest archaeological preserve. Its ancient cliff dwellings were left by the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians.
So far this year, U.S. wildfires have consumed more than 4.7 million acres (7,343 square miles), an amount of land just slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey.
CNN Correspondent Don Knapp contributed to this report, written by CNN Interactive's Jim Morris.
Western wildfires finally lose ground
Yellowstone National Park
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