Winds fan Western wildfires
Thursday , August 16, 2012 - 1:58 AM
FEATHERVILLE, Idaho — Across the West, dozens of fires fueled by searing heat, dry weather and strong winds have added up to misery for weary residents who already are fed up with one of the region's worst fire seasons in decades.
On Wednesday, hundreds of residents of two small Idaho towns were packing their belongings and clearing out of the way of a massive wildfire burning in a gulch a few miles away and expected to hit town later this week.
Wildfires also tormented homeowners in Washington, Oregon and California, as arid conditions kept fire crews busier than usual across the region.
Jennifer Smith, of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said not only are more wildfires occurring in the West this year than last, but the nation's fires have gotten bigger.
As of Wednesday, 42,933 wildfires had been reported in the U.S. this season, burning 6.4 million acres. The 10-year average for this period is 52,535 fires but covering only 5 million acres, she said.
"Nevada has been hammered, and Idaho has some big ones that are going to burn until the snow falls," Smith said.
Idaho's Trinity Ridge Fire has burned more than 100 square miles in the past two weeks. It's bearing down on Pine and Featherville, recreation getaways in the mountains 105 miles northeast of Boise.
"It's not a question of if, but when," Boise National Forest Spokesman Dave Olson said of the fire reaching Featherville's outskirts.
On Wednesday, there was a steady stream of traffic with people leaving Pine and Featherville, a town with a single main street, saloon, motel, cafe and a handful of other shops. The area has 450 homes, with about half inhabited year-round and the others serving as summer and weekend retreats.
A veil of smoke has loomed over Featherville for several days, a signal for many that evacuation orders may soon be coming. Officials say a mandatory evacuation order could be issued within 24 to 36 hours.
Lorie Winmill, a 44-year-old who works at Cyndie's Featherville Cafe, was emotional Wednesday as she loaded her vehicle and prepared her 4-year-old granddaughter, Lizzie, to stay with relatives elsewhere.
"This is the only home Lizzie has ever known," Winmill said, tearing up.
Fire crews are battling a total of nine big fires in Idaho, including one in the Salmon-Challis National Forest that stranded 250 rafters floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Authorities closed a backcountry access road due to falling boulders and debris caused by the blaze. Some of the floaters were stuck for two days before authorities began shuttling them out Wednesday.
In central Washington, hundreds of firefighters using planes, helicopters, bulldozers and hand tools managed to contain 25 percent of wildfire that has destroyed dozens of homes across about 35 square miles.
The containment figure announced Wednesday evening was up from the previous 10 percent.
Fire spokesman Glenn Kohler said officials ordered more evacuations late Wednesday on the Taylor Bridge Fire's north flank. He didn't know how many people were affected. Hundreds have left their homes.
The fire that started Monday has scorched more than 22,000 acres. More than 800 people were working to suppress it.
Authorities said at least 60 primary residences have been destroyed, but conditions were too dangerous to come up with an exact count.
In Northern California, firefighters already dealing with extreme heat braced Wednesday for the possibility of thunderstorms and strong winds as they tried to conquer several raging wildfires.
Crews fought to re-establish containment lines as the Chips Fire in Plumas National Forest threatened more than 900 homes and prompted voluntary evacuations. The blaze has burned 66 square miles and was about 20 percent contained.
It's among the largest of nearly a dozen major wildfires burning across California that some 8,000 firefighters are battling, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Fire officials also issued a statewide burning ban that will stay in effect until there's a significant change in the weather or until the end of fire season.
Also in Northern California, firefighters made significant progress against a wildfire in Lake County, despite dry weather and triple-digit temperatures.
The fire was 70 percent contained, and hundreds of evacuees were allowed to return after the fire that burned more than 12 square miles and threatened nearly 500 homes in Spring Valley.
In Southern California, wildfires threatened dozens of homes after burning through more than 19 square miles of brush in the midst of a brutal heat wave.
In rural northeastern San Diego County, a complex of five wildfires caused by lightning had burned more than 14½ square miles of wilderness and was 5 percent contained, state fire Capt. Mike Mohler said.
Evacuation orders were issued for the communities of Ranchita and Santa Fe, covering about 180 homes and 400 residents.
The two largest and most active fires were above the desert floor in an area subject to erratic winds. Forecasts called for a return of monsoonal moisture that could create thunderstorms with even more erratic winds Thursday, Mohler said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Riverside County said residents can return to dozens of homes threatened by a 4½-square-mile wildfire in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains.
County fire officials said in a statement that evacuation orders were called off at 6 p.m. Wednesday for 47 homes.
The fire near the community of Aguanga between Hemet and Temecula has burned four structures, including at least one home. It is 15 percent contained.
A resident living in a trailer was seriously burned and a second resident received lesser injuries after the fire broke out Tuesday. Three firefighters received minor injuries.
In Oregon, four major blazes have been burning across the state since a series of lightning storms last week. Firefighters strengthened lines protecting about 20 rural homes outside Lakeview, but an evacuation advisory remained in force for those and a dozen more.
Meanwhile, the Barry Point fire continued to grow on the southern end in California, where it is burning timber and sagebrush on the Modoc National Forest. It remains 25 percent contained at 92 square miles.
Firefighters said higher humidity has helped them all but contain the Nevada portion of a huge wildfire burning on both sides of the Nevada-Oregon state line. They said the Holloway Fire died down and stopped spreading Tuesday night.
In Montana, a wildfire west of Polson burned about seven square miles of grassland and timber and forced the evacuations of 15 residents. The fire started Monday.
And in Wyoming, firefighters used a helicopter to rescue five California men from a fishing camp at a remote mountain lake after a wildfire threatened their only way out. The evacuation of the outfitter camp occurred Tuesday after the Alpine Lake Fire made a significant run in the Shoshone National Forest, fire spokesman Karl Brauneis said.
The fire has burned about 1,300 acres.
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