Crews battle dozens of Western fires

Associated Press
Flames in a smoldering field inch toward a firefighter Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, near Cle Elum, Wash. Crews fighting the large blaze in central Washington hope to increase containment levels by Wednesday evening, but are keeping a wary eye on weather conditions later in the week. The fire burning near Cle Elum has burned dozens of homes and caused about 900 people to evacuate. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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FEATHERVILLE, Idaho (AP) — 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.

A series of wildfires also has started or intensified in recent days in Washington, northern California and Nevada as the West's high heat and dry conditions keep fire crews busier than usual.

Not only are more of the nation's wildfires occurring in the West this year than last, but the fires have gotten bigger, said Jennifer Smith of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. As of Wednesday, 42,933 wildfires have been reported in the nation 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 two hours northeast of Boise.

"It's not a question of if, but when," Boise National Forest Spokesman Dave Olson said of the fire reaching the outskirts of Featherville.

On Wednesday, there was a steady stream of traffic with people leaving Featherville and Pine. The area has 450 homes. About half are inhabited year-round, while the others are summer homes and weekend retreats.

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.

Nevada has 11 big fires burning and California has 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In central Washington, crews fighting a large blaze hoped to increase containment levels by Wednesday evening, but they kept a wary eye on weather forecast for later in the week.

The fire near Cle Elum has burned dozens of homes and caused about 900 people to evacuate. Incident commander Rex Reed said he was hopeful containment would be up from 10 percent to 25 percent later in the day.

"We're at 800 people assigned to this fire now, so we should have a good day," he said of efforts to battle the Taylor Bridge fire, which has scorched 28,000 acres, or more than 40 square miles.

The fire broke out Monday at a bridge construction site.

In California, firefighters already dealing with the extreme heat were bracing Wednesday for the possibility of thunderstorms and strong winds in their quest to conquer raging wildfires.

In far Northern California, crews fought to re-establish containment lines as a blaze at the Chips Fire in the Plumas National Forest continued to threaten more than 900 homes and prompted voluntary evacuations.

A day after firefighters had to pull back as blowing embers helped spread the blaze along the southern edge, crews were concerned that thunderstorms could make their jobs even more difficult, fire spokeswoman Alissa Tanner said Wednesday.

"That's the biggest question," Tanner said. "If the thunderstorms will just be rain and not gusts of winds that will be a real blessing. If not, then it could spread the fire in many different directions."

The blaze has burned 66 square miles and is about 20 percent contained, Tanner said.

Elsewhere in California, firefighters have made significant progress battling a wildfire in nearby Lake County, despite dry weather and triple-digit temperatures.

The fire is now 70 percent contained as hundreds of evacuees were allowed to return after the fire that burned more than 12 square miles and threatened nearly 500 homes in the Spring Valley community.

In Southern California, wildfires continue to threaten dozens of homes after burning through more than 19 square miles of brush in the midst of a brutal heat wave.

A 4½-square-mile blaze in foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County is 15 about percent contained, state fire officials said Wednesday. The fast-moving blaze, which has already burned four structures, is threatening 47 homes near the community of Aguanga east of Temecula, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Two residents were burned, one seriously, officials said.

In northeastern San Diego County, a series of lightning fires was 15 percent contained after burning more than 14½ square miles of wilderness.

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Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco; Nick Geranios in Spokane, Wash.; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore.; Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City; Doug Esser in Seattle; and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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