Wildfires blaze across West, threaten Idaho communities

SALMON, Idaho/CLE ELUM, Washington Thu Aug 16, 2012 4:33am IST

1 of 7. A helicopter drops Thermo-Gel on the Barry Point wildfire near Lakeview, Oregon, in this USDA Forest Service handout photo dated August 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lucinda Nolan/Fremont-Winema National Forest/Handout

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SALMON, Idaho/CLE ELUM, Washington (Reuters) - Wildfires roared out of control across the sun-scorched U.S. West on Wednesday and threatened to roll into two small towns in Idaho as firefighters managed to partially dampen a monster blaze that has destroyed 60 homes in Washington state.

All told, the fires have charred more than half a million acres across Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, destroying homes and outbuildings, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate ahead of the flames and killing a young firefighter.

In Idaho, authorities advised some 1,000 residents around the central communities of Featherville and Pine to prepare to evacuate on Wednesday as a blaze that has consumed more than 63,000 acres raged just miles from the two towns.

"We're adopting a posture that it's not if it's going to hit Featherville and Pine, but when," Elmore County Sheriff's Office spokesman Gary Walker said, adding that the early warning is designed to prevent "a big, mass confusion once we have to get people out of there."

The Trinity Ridge fire that threatens Featherville and Pine erupted after a utility terrain vehicle caught fire on August 3. Strong winds sent flames racing across parched grasslands and sagebrush and into tinder-dry pine forests, federal fire information officer Brandon Hampton said.

The blaze, burning 5 miles west of Featherville, was 5 percent contained and roads to the pair of high mountain desert towns about 50 miles southeast of Boise have been blocked to everyone except residents and firefighters.

"The prediction is it's going to burn until we get a weather pattern that brings a season-changing event, a substantial amount of snow or rain," Hampton said, adding there was a high probability that the fire would make a run into the towns over the next two days.

FIREFIGHTERS BATTLE WASHINGTON BLAZE

In Washington state, firefighters battling the destructive 28,000-acre (11,331-hectare) Taylor Bridge Fire between the northwest towns of Cle Elum and Ellensburg were aided by a shift in winds and able to contain 25 percent of the blaze by Wednesday morning.

Incident commander Rex Reed said Wednesday marked "a good day" for firefighters working against a blaze that has already gutted 60 homes and a number of other structures since it erupted on Monday afternoon at a construction site near Cle Elum, about 70 miles southeast of Seattle.

But he said officials worried that the winds, which died down overnight and slowed the fire's advance after burning 1,000 acres an hour on Monday, could shift again and drive flames north into the Wenatchee National Forest or east toward farm communities.

In California, 8,000 firefighters battled wildfires up and down the state that forced the evacuation of three Southern California communities, closed parks and campgrounds, and threatened homes and a major power-transmission line.

In San Diego County, five lightning-sparked fires blackened more than 9,000 acres in and around Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The nearby small communities of San Felipe and Ranchita had to be evacuated, along with the park's campground, Riverside County Fire spokeswoman Blanca Mercado said.

EVACUATIONS IN RIVERSIDE COUNTY

Just over the hill in Riverside County, a fast-moving fire that started Tuesday burned 3,000 acres and destroyed four structures, prompting sheriff's deputies to order 47 homes evacuated, Riverside County Fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said.

That fire was burning toward the San Bernardino National Forest, where firefighters have suppressed 29 small lightning-sparked fires since August 9.

In Northern California, firefighters had largely contained a pair of fires that had burned about 8,000 acresand threatened hundreds of homes and a clothing-optional hot-spring resort in Lake County.

Since Sunday, California's biggest fire, ignited by lightning, had burned nearly 100,000 acres (40,468 acres) on Bureau of Land Management property in Northern California's Lassen County and threatened a major natural gas line and transfer station and power transmission lines that supply the Reno area, said Deb Schweizer, a fire information officer.

Another lightning-sparked fire has burned 24,000 acres of park and forest land in Lassen Volcanic National Park since late July, forcing the closing of a highway and campgrounds and threatening 148 homes and 50 commercial properties, said Jay Nichols, spokesman for the California Interagency Incident Command Team.

In south central Oregon, the Barry Point fire, which has so far burned nearly 60,000 acres, was threatening 66 homes.

"We had a four-mile run in California yesterday," fire spokeswoman Renee Snyder said, adding that the blaze was headed into a large area of the Modoc National Forest. About 1,400 firefighters have been attacking the fire by land and air in the forested, sparsely populated area.

(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen, Teresa Carson, Laura Zuckerman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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