Idaho Fire Menaces Resort Town, Property Toll Rises In Cascades

by
Reuters
A wildfire roaring through mountainous terrain in Idaho's Boise National Forest crept closer to the resort town of Featherville on Thursday, as voluntary evacuations began and firefighters scrambled to make a last stand against the advancing flames.

Smoke from the Trinity Ridge Fire rises over the mountains outside Pine, Idaho August 15 2012. Wildfires roared out of control across the sun-scorched U.S. West on Wednesday and threatened to engulf two small towns in Idaho as firefighters managed to partially dampen a monster blaze that has destroyed more than 60 homes in Washington state.

(Reuters) - A wildfire roaring through mountainous terrain in Idaho's Boise National Forest crept closer to the resort town of Featherville on Thursday, as voluntary evacuations began and firefighters scrambled to make a last stand against the advancing flames.

The so-called Trinity Ridge blaze, which has charred nearly 70,000 acres of sagebrush and woodland east of Boise over the past six days, is one of dozens of large fires burning out of control across several drought-parched western states.

One of the more destructive of the fires flared into its fourth day near the town of Cle Elum in northwestern Washington state, where authorities reported on Thursday that 70-plus homes and more than 200 barns and other structures were demolished earlier this week.

More than 400 homes have been evacuated in Washington state, but firefighters managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the blaze's perimeter by Wednesday night, with full containment expected within a week, authorities said.

The Washington state blaze, dubbed the Taylor Bridge Fire, has scorched nearly 23,000 acres of rolling hills along the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries on Wednesday.

The much-larger Trinity Ridge Fire a few hundred miles to the southeast in Idaho posed a greater threat to property on Thursday, and nearly 1,000 firefighters were amassed for a last-ditch effort to keep flames at bay.

Strangely enough, a column of smoke from the blaze settled over Featherville on Wednesday, cooling temperatures and slowing the fire's steady march toward town, fire information officer Lisa Machnik said.

But the leading edge of the blaze still moved a mile closer, to within 4 miles of the town limits, as containment faltered.

EVACUATIONS

Efforts were concentrated on Thursday on building fire breaks in and around Featherville, clearing brush from around houses and other structures and setting up sprinkler systems, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Arnold Hartigan said.

An estimated 1,000 people in Featherville and the nearby town of Pine braced for mandatory evacuation orders, but some residents of Featherville started clearing out on their own on Wednesday night.

Authorities reopened roads to incoming traffic for about 12 hours overnight and into Thursday morning to allow residents who fled to return for long enough to collect personal belongings.

"We're trying to allow as many people as possible to preserve their memories by gathering up family photographs and other mementos and keep hold of those parts of their lives," Elmore county Sheriff's Office spokesman Gary Walker said.

Pat Christensen, co-owner of Cyndie's Featherville Cafe, said he and his wife intended to stay put for the time being to keep their lunch counter going.

"We're still open for business," he said, adding that he believed measures taken by fire crews had provided sufficient safety.

More than 60 large uncontained wildfires were blazing across the United States on Thursday, the bulk of them in 10 western states -- Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Montana and Wyoming, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reported.

So far this season, wild land conflagrations have consumed about 6.3 million acres across the country, more than 1 million acres above the 10-year average for this time of year, the agency said.

One firefighter lost her life on Sunday in north-central Idaho when a tree fell on her. It was first death of a U.S. Forest Service firefighter since 2009.