Here's how bad western wildfires are getting: Not only are dozens of homes burning in central Washington near Cle Elum and two towns preparing for evacuation in Idaho, but 250 rafters were stranded for up to two days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, after authorities closed a backcountry access road due to falling boulders and debris caused by wildfire. Authorities shuttled the stranded floaters out this morning with pilot cars, but this afternoon, more debris came down and the road closed again. That means as more rafters head down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, the point where they typically board buses for the trip out after a six-day rafting trip, they, too, could face delays.
There was a steady stream of traffic leaving Pine and Featherville today as the residents of the two small communities were advised to pack up their belongs as the Trinity Ridge fire approaches, reports AP reporter Jessie Bonner; that blaze has burned more than 100 square miles in the past two weeks and is headed for the outskirts of Featherville. “It's not a question of if, but when,” Boise National Forest spokesman Dave Olson told the AP; click below for the full report. National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said fires have intensified in recent days in Washington, northern California and Nevada. “Nevada has been hammered,” she said, “and Idaho has some big ones that are going to burn until the snow falls.”
Crews battle dozens of Western fires
By JESSIE L. BONNER, Associated Press
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.
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, Idaho, 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, consoled her sobbing 4-year-old granddaughter, Lizzie, and prepared to stay with friends elsewhere.
“This is the only home Lizzie has ever known,” Winmill said, tearing up herself.
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 used planes, helicopters and bulldozers to battle a large blaze, but authorities said it could be some time before they know exactly how extensive the property damage is.
Incident commander Rex Reed said Wednesday afternoon that the Taylor Bridge Fire had scorched about 22,000 acres, or roughly 34 square miles. At least 60 primary residences have been destroyed, but conditions were still too dangerous to come up with an exact count, Reed said.
Crews hoped to increase containment levels by Wednesday evening, but officials were keeping a wary eye on conditions forecast for later in the week. The fire near Cle Elum has caused hundreds of residents to flee.
The fire broke out Monday at a bridge construction site.
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.
Firefighters struggled to regain ground lost Tuesday as blowing embers helped spread the blaze along its southern edge. Thunderstorms could aid their work or make their jobs even more difficult, fire spokeswoman Alissa Tanner said.
“If the thunderstorms will just be rain and not gusts of winds that will be a real blessing,” she said. “If not, then it could spread the fire in many different directions.”
The blaze has burned 66 square miles and was about 20 percent contained.
Firefighters made significant progress against a wildfire in nearby 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 the Spring Valley community.
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, a 4½-square-mile blaze in the foothills of Riverside County's San Jacinto Mountains threatened 47 homes and was 15 percent contained. It didn't move much overnight, authorities said.
The fire near the community of Aguanga, east of Temecula, had burned four structures, including at least one home.
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.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco; Nick Geranios in Spokane, Wash.; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore.; and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.