August 26, 2010 in Idaho

Wildfire evacuations ordered in central Idaho

Todd Dvorak Associated Press
Ashley Smith photo

An employee of the Half Moon Ranch moves cattle on Monday, Aug. 23, 2010, southeast of Hagerman, Idaho. The Long Butte Fire ignited Saturday in a lightning storm in an area 35 miles south of Glenns Ferry. But strong winds Sunday and Monday fueled its growth, making it the nation’s biggest active wildfire.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE — Authorities in central Idaho asked residents living near and at Tamarack Resort to clear out of their homes and condominiums today as firefighters battled the wind-fanned flames of the Hurd Fire now burning about a mile away.

An immediate evacuation was ordered this morning for subdivisions near the golf and ski resort. But hours later, as winds reached speeds of 30 mph, deputies began making the rounds to the pricier properties tucked between ski runs and pockets of forest.

Resort workers also turned on snowmaking equipment to soak unburned sections of the mountain, and air tankers dumped retardant on the mountain west of Donnelly.

So far, fire officials say there are no reports of property damage. But that could change late today when winds that have been blowing from the south all day are predicted to shift east, said Madonna Lengerich, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management.

“It’ll probably be a late night for all of our crews,” said Lengerich. “Right now the fire is about a mile from the resort. But that doesn’t mean much if we start getting the heavy and shifting winds.”

The blaze began Saturday in a lightning strike but — fueled by wind gusts, dry conditions and heat — grew Wednesday night to 550 acres. More than 700 firefighters and support staff are on the scene and worked to contain at least 20 percent of it.

The blaze is one of several significant fires being fought across the state in a late-season surge in wildfire activity.

The Long Butte Fire burning in the southern Idaho desert is 50 percent contained. After revising earlier estimates, fire officials said the Long Butte blaze has now scorched more than 478 square miles of flat landscape populated by sagebrush and cheatgrass.

Some of the 306,000 acres that have burned since Saturday include the home range of a wild horse herd and about 75 percent of the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Officials said they managed to remove valuable fossil collections but are worried about the long-term impacts of the fire on fossil beds and active dig sites from erosion and mud slides.

Near the central Idaho town of Stanley, more than 560 firefighters are battling the Banner Fire, which grew by 350 acres Wednesday and has now scorched more than 2,000 acres.

A lightning storm that moved through the Boise area this afternoon ignited several more wildfires, including two in the southern regions of the Boise National Forest, said Dave Olson, spokesman for the forest.

Firefighters are responding to a wildfire at the Wilderness Ranch subdivision 25 miles northeast of Boise. Olson said about 30 structures and homes are threatened.

Tom Milby, who has lived four years at Wilderness Ranch, said firefighting aircraft used earlier at the Hurd Fire have been making pass after pass over his home, dropping retardant on a blaze burning just over the ridge from where his home is located.

The rural subdivision is located in steep, partially forested terrain, and Milby said residents are always aware of the possibility of wildfire.

“If something got going here, it would be difficult, to say the least,” he said, as two more planes flew overhead. “They’re making the same pass, from east to west. The smoke is still coming up.”

Crews have also been called to a fire near the small mountain town of Crouch.

The biggest challenge in the effort today to gain ground on the wildfires is the weather. The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning indicating extreme burning conditions and forecasts of a strong cold front moving into the southern portion of the state, bringing high winds and thunderstorms. The warning expires early Friday morning.

“It’s a little bit windy right now but we’re not seeing any effects from it,” said Long Butte Fire Spokesman Bob Narus. “But we are definitely not out of the woods with the winds at this point.”

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