“Extremely critical” fire risk in Montana as heat sears West

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Triple-digit temperatures broke records across parts of the Northern Plains on Wednesday, as forecasters warned strong winds could stoke out-of-control wildfires and said the dangerous conditions would sweep into the central Plains by Thursday.

The National Weather Service warned of “extremely critical” fire conditions across 22,600-square-miles (59,000 square kilometers) in northern Montana including the cities of Great Falls and Havre.

Record-breaking temperatures hammered Sheridan, Wyoming, which set a new high for September of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). Along a main thoroughfare in downtown Billings, where the temperature hit 102 degrees (39 C) and set a daily record, Gale Spotted Bear sat in the shade of a vacant building as he sought shelter from the punishing sun.

A native of the Blackfeet Reservation next to mountainous Glacier National Park, Spotted Bear said he’s struggled with heat waves that can be more intense on the plains.

“This year has been hotter than hell,” said Spotted Bear, adding that homeless people can be hit the hardest if they have nowhere to go. “It’s hard out here,” he said.

The high temperatures, wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) and tinder-dry fuels meant fires could spread rapidly.

Portions of western Montana, Oregon, northern California, Idaho and Washington state also had critical wildfire danger.

The risk will shift to the south and east Thursday. Fire warnings were issued for areas of South Dakota, Nebraska and Idaho.

Nearly 54 million people were under heat warnings and advisories across the West as temperature records were shattered in many areas.

Relief was nearing for parts of the region: A fast-moving cold front out of the Canadian Rocky Mountains was expected to drive down temperatures to well below average by Friday.