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NW Today: Officials brace for dangerous wildfire season

What’s news in the Northwest today:

DENVER — A prolonged drought and record-breaking temperatures have many Western states preparing for another active — and dangerous — wildfire season.

In some places, that season is already under way. Colorado had a deadly wildfire last month. Other Western states have reported hundreds of smaller fires.

Officials in California and other states say that grass, brush and forest didn’t get the winter soakings that allows them to retain water — and put off fire. That could mean a busy wildfire season that normally doesn’t kick in for much of the West until May or June.

Federal meteorologists say nearly all of the Southwest is experiencing drought. And that’s coming off a year in which Arizona and New Mexico experienced their worst wildfires on record.

Montana Supreme Court rejects regional selection of justices

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a ballot initiative that would have required candidates for the high court to be chosen from geographical districts instead of through statewide elections.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-to-1 ruling, upheld a March court decision that said the proposed initiative is unconstitutional because it would have required candidates to live within those districts.

The Montana Constitution requires only that a candidate live in the state for two years. The additional residency requirement would have amounted to a constitutional change that can’t be made with a regular ballot initiative forwarded by the state Legislature, District Judge James Reynolds had ruled.

Rural Montanans ask postmaster to reconsider closures

HELENA — The top U.S. Postal Service official on Thursday took his case for rural post office closures straight to the people it will hurt most, telling Montana residents that up to 3,600 small post offices around the country need to be shuttered as part of cost-cutting moves.

Rural residents who traveled to Helena to meet Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe answered right back, saying their post offices provide a much-needed lifeline and suggesting cuts be made elsewhere.

One woman from the southwestern Montana town of Basin told Donahoe she has no Internet access and relies on the mail. But like many other rural residents, she does not receive mail delivery.

DeDe Rhodes said if her post office closes, the next one is more than 10 miles away, making her regular trip to pick up mail much more costly.

“I need you to really consider what we are saying. People need their rural post offices,” Rhodes told Donahoe. “Let’s look at the urban areas. Maybe they don’t need as many post offices because they get their mail delivered right to their door, or at least to the curb.”

In Montana alone, about 80 small post offices are slated for closure, from Alzada to Zurich.

Driver in students’ school bus emergency dies

MILTON, Wash. — A Washington school bus driver has died two days after he suffered a heart attack at the wheel, prompting students to take over.

Fife School District Deputy Superintendent Jeff Short says 43-year-old Ryan Callis died Wednesday evening.

Bus footage shows 13-year-old Jeremy Wuitschick rushing down the aisle to the unconscious driver and grabbing the wheel Monday morning as other students yell: “Call 911!”

Wuitschick turned off the ignition and guided the bus safely onto the curb. Students started CPR on Callis until help arrived.

Paramedics who rushed to Surprise Lake Middle School in Milton, Wash., said the Tacoma man suffered a heart attack.

Woman claims wedding ring found in sewer

BOISE — A Boise woman says she believes in miracles after sewer workers found the $6,000 diamond wedding ring she accidentally flushed down the toilet 18 months ago.

Mechelle Rieger claimed the seven-diamond ring Thursday morning at City Hall in Kuna, bringing with her a photo and the March 2001 appraisal from the jeweler that made it.

Rieger thanked city workers Travis Fleming and Carey Knight, who spotted the ring along with loose coins in a filtration basket while doing routine maintenance last week.

Rieger said she freaked out and “just started screaming” when the ring accidentally fell in the toilet. She says there was more screaming involved when she got a voice message from a friend relaying the news about a ring being found in the sewer in her old neighborhood.

State high court: Accident reports are public records

OLYMPIA — Accident reports compiled by troopers and maintained in a state database should be treated as public records available by request, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Justices said in their 7-2 decision that the Washington State Patrol improperly withheld files from a person seeking location-specific records. He was asked to sign a document vowing that he would not use the records to sue the state.

The state had argued that a federal statute shielded the records because the documents were located in an electronic database that the Department of Transportation utilized for a federal hazard elimination program.

“Until 2003, citizens have been able to request and receive copies of accident reports specific to a location,” Justice Mary E. Fairhurst said in the majority opinion. “The state now asks us to place Washington citizens in a worse position than they would have been before (the federal statute). The state’s argument is rejected.”

The court also awarded plaintiff Michael Gendler an unspecified amount of attorney’s fees for the case. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna says attorneys are reviewing the decision to see what options they might have.

Gendler was paralyzed from the neck down in an October 2007 bike crash after his tire got caught in a grate on the Montlake Bridge in Seattle. He sued the state, claiming a gap between steel panels was more than a half-inch wide — enough to catch a bike tire.

The state Department of Transportation agreed to pay $8 million to settle his lawsuit.

Justice James M. Johnson wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing that the evidence suggests the records are compiled for the federal hazard elimination program and that federal law shields records gathered for that purpose.

Idaho rates low on preparedness for kindergarten

TWIN FALLS — A national study finds Idaho’s lack of a state-funded preschool program puts students at an educational disadvantage when compared to their peers in other states.

The Times-News reports some school officials in south-central Idaho agree with the report released Tuesday, saying preschool makes a big difference in helping prepare students for a more rigorous experience in kindergarten.

Bill Brulotte is the principal at I.B. Perrine Elementary School in Twin Falls and says many kindergarten teachers can tell within their first week of classes which of their students went to preschool. Brulotte says those students are more likely to be successful later.

The nonpartisan National Institute for Early Education Research report examined 39 states that do offer state-funded preschool education programs.

Idaho doesn’t require children to attend preschool or kindergarten.