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Dry Northwest burns as fire season in West extends

WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) — A haze of thick smoke formed Tuesday over vast swaths of the West as wildfires forced more residents to flee their homes in several states.

Fire officials reported seven homes were destroyed and hundreds of people were evacuated near Casper, Wyo., where a wildfire has burned across almost 24 square miles. In western Montana, fire crews said there was no containment in sight for a blaze that has prompted an evacuation order for 400 houses west of Hamilton.

With winds dying down, fire crews in eastern Washington were hopeful they could gain ground on dozens of fires sparked by weekend lightning storms, but more evacuation orders were issued Tuesday as a wildfire continued to move in the hills west of Wenatchee, a fruit capital on the banks of the Columbia River.

Residents of nearly 120 homes were evacuated due to the fire burning about 140 miles east of Seattle.

About 160 firefighters from across the state gathered to help fight the blaze. Resident Shannon Grosdidier and her four daughters delivered oatmeal cookies to several stationed at the end of her street Monday night.

"The wind has died down, which is good," she said. "But I've got the photo albums in the car and our overnight bags packed."

Only a shed has been lost near Wenatchee, and no injuries have been reported at what appeared to be the most-threatening of numerous wildfires in the state that were sparked by lightning Saturday.

In Montana, Sawtooth Fire spokesman Gregg DeNitto with the U.S. Forest Service said there was no word on when residents there might be allowed to return. The fire exploded over the past two days from just over 1 square mile to more than 6, although no houses were reported lost.

"Most of the structures are still a half-mile to a mile from the fire's edge," DeNitto said.

Firefighters got help from the weather in Wyoming, where cooler temperatures and calmer winds bought time to put more people and equipment into action around two large fires.

As many as 750 homes were threatened by the large wildfire near Casper. Some 400 people were evacuated from 150 homes.

Firefighters on Tuesday planned to deploy more than a dozen aircraft against the blaze, including two air tankers and seven helicopters.

Blazes have scorched more than 8.1 million acres across the West so far this year, up from the 10-year average of 6.1 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, nearly 100 property owners filed a lawsuit Tuesday in state district court blaming a utility for one of the state's largest wildfires this year.

The lawsuit against Rocky Mountain Power alleges arcing between power transmission lines sparked the 75-square-mile Wood Hollow Fire, which destroyed 52 cabins or houses in central Utah and left one man dead in June.

Rocky Mountain Power told The Associated Press the lawsuit is unnecessary because the utility is pursuing out-of-court settlements with dozens of families. The company admits no fault.

Rocky Mountain Power initially blamed a thief who stripped protective cooper wire from one of its transmission poles. However, a state fire investigator determined the ground wire wasn't designed to absorb a powerful arc between separate high-voltage lines.

Other blazes burning across the West include:

— The Horsethief Canyon Fire, which has burned about 4 square miles south of the resort town of Jackson, Wyo. Firefighters were working to protect the town and the Jackson Hole valley's main communications towers from the blaze. About 1,000 residents have been warned to be prepared to leave in case the blaze gets too close. The fire was 10 percent contained Tuesday.

— The Millie Fire, burning 20 miles south of Bozeman, Mont. The fire continued to threaten the city's water supply and 10 commercial buildings. Fire spokeswoman Jennifer Myslivy said the flames were stopped for now at the top of a ridge over South Cottonwood Canyon, sparing adjacent areas that serve as Bozeman's watershed.

— The Pole Creek Fire southwest of the town of Sisters in central Oregon. About 300 firefighters were assigned to blaze, which was burning most heavily in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. The fire area had grown to nearly 7 square miles, or 4,300 acres, by Tuesday.

— As many as 80 fires sparked by lightning Saturday along the east slopes of the Cascades in Washington state. Most remained small, but one fire threatened homes near Grand Coulee Dam in Douglas and Grant counties and burned more than 23 square miles of sagebrush and grass. Another fire 17 miles southwest of Creston in Lincoln County burned across 28 square miles.

— A wildfire in a rugged area of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, which was 91 percent contained Tuesday after burning 6 square miles. The fire broke out over Labor Day weekend, sending thousands of visitors from the Angeles National Forest and keeping out thousands more. A few dozen residents had to evacuate but were allowed to return late last week.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.

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