By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Firefighters are beginning to confine the Monument fire to one hot corner.
The lightning-caused blaze has not added to its 24,700 acres since Wednesday, but fire officials remain concerned about its potential to blow up at the northwest corner, where thickets of dead lodgepole pine provide an ample fuel source.
In addition, fire crews have to hike across steep terrain even to reach the area where they're digging fire lines.
andquot;All our problems and challenges remain on that northwest side,andquot; said Don Ferguson, an information officer at the fire camp in Unity. andquot;We do have a big weak link in our lines. It's like a hole in a bucket.andquot; The rest of that bucket is holding, however.
Although the Monument fire officially is 30 percent contained, Ferguson said fire lines actually surround about two-thirds of the blaze.
Fire bosses don't count some of those sections of line as containment lines because unburned fuel remains between them and the main fire, Ferguson said.
Still, andquot;a lot of those lines have held through some pretty heavy winds,andquot; he said.
Strengthening those lines, and burning that untouched fuel, will be a high priority for the firefighters who arrived in Unity today a battalion of U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan.
The soldiers, about 500 in all, will train Tuesday and Wednesday, Ferguson said.
andquot;By Thursday they'll be ready for deployment,andquot; he said.
Because their training is necessarily limited, the soldiers will not dig fire line right next to flames, a task left to Hot Shots and other, more experienced crews, Ferguson said.
The Army also is sending several water-dropping helicopters to bolster the current fleet of three heavy choppers, each of which can drop 2,000 gallons of water per load, Ferguson said.
In addition, the Kansas battalion has a pair of Huey rescue helicopters that can fly any time, Ferguson said.
Those choppers will be available to haul out injured firefighters, he said.
The battalion, which includes about 150 support people, nearly doubles the Monument fire's personnel total of 724.
andquot;We're building up a pretty good firefighting force here,andquot; Ferguson said.
Firefighters are still taking advantage of rain showers that doused parts of the Monument fire late last week.
Although rainfall generally totaled a tenth of an inch or less, it was sufficient to slow the fire and allow crews to build lines on the northeast, east and south sides, Ferguson said.
andquot;We got just enough relief from those scattered showers and high humidity to make the difference,andquot; he said.
The brief weather improvement apparently will not last, though.
The National Weather Service is predicting a chance of thunderstorms the next several days, with wind gusts as strong as 50 mph possible.
Thunderstorm winds pose a particular hazard for firefighters not only because they can attain gale force, but also because it's nearly impossible to predict their direction, Ferguson said.
National forest lands in the vicinity of the fire, as well as several roads, remain closed to the public.