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Fire Emergency Declared As Blazes Race Across Idaho

From Staff And Wire Reports

Fires consumed consumed thousands of acres of land in Idaho on Saturday along with buildings and structures near Lewiston.

Gov. Phil Batt declared a state of fire emergency. That allowed about 85 Boise-area Idaho National Guardsmen to be mobilized for fire training.

In Bonner County, an out-of-control wildfire scorched from 40 to 80 acres of National Forest land a mile west of Lakeview.

“It got dark on us before we got a handle on it,” said Mark Vore of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. About 20 firefighters battled the blaze at the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille late Saturday, and 100 more were on the way.

Before nightfall, firefighters used planes and helicopters to dump retardant on the torched timber.

The fire started near the shore of the lake about 5:30 p.m., Vore said, then spread quickly.

Investigators aren’t sure what started the fire, but Vore said they suspect it was “person caused.”

A fire that started in dry grass and brush Friday afternoon in the hills north of Lewiston grew to an estimated 6,000 acres by evening, said Mark Swift of the Clarkston, Wash., fire department.

The blaze burned several miles east of the Washington border, less than a mile east of the Lewiston city limits.

One mobile home was destroyed, along with several outbuildings, some cars and some electrical poles, said firefighter John Crawford.

The immediate concern for about 25 firefighters was to save a Washington Water Power Co. substation that provides electricity throughout the area, Crawford said.

“We’ll make a defense on it and not allow it to be overrun,” Crawford said.

An eastern Idaho range fire near the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory reached 160,000 acres Saturday morning. Firefighters contained the blaze on its north end, and Forest Service fire information officer Lynn Ballard said the effort shifted to the southern end of the blaze.

“We have that end (north) closed up. It’s the southern end that we are having trouble with,” he said.

About 80 firefighters were on the fire lines. Ballard said they had tankers on hand at Pocatello and West Yellowstone, Mont., if necessary.

The northern end of the blaze neared INEL, a federal nuclear research center, but Ballard said fire crews completed backfires that lessened the danger.

The blaze has not caused much damage, other than to blacken thousands of acres of sagebrush and grass. But Ballard said the problem remains on the southern end.

“We are getting closer,” he said. “We are moving down toward private land and farms.”

In southcentral Idaho, fire crews battled to regain control of a range fire that reached 11,000 acres and threatened several cabins, homes and the Pomerelle Ski Area. Information Officer Tracey Behrens said the fire was expected to be contained Saturday.

Payette Forest closed a number of forest roads over the Labor Day weekend, traditionally a period of heavy use, because of the fire danger and firefighting activity. The closures included a six-mile area around Goose Lake.

A 230-acre blaze in the Nez Perce National Forest 39 miles southeast of Grangeville was listed 60 percent contained Saturday afternoon, although winds were hampering line construction.

Officials said fire training would start at a Boise military installation, Gowen Field, with help from firemen from the Boise and Eagle fire departments and a task force from the federal National Interagency Fire Center.

In Washington state, a wind-fanned fire burning in brush and grass forced evacuation of 20 homes west of Ellensburg late Saturday.

Sixty firefighters were dispatched to the fire by 9 p.m. Saturday, and 60 more were due before 11 p.m., said Brad Smith, assistant fire chief for Ellensburg.

Winds of 30 mph “could be bad news,” Smith said, adding the fire was over 300 acres in size. “It’s extremely dry. Outdoor burning has been closed in the county for a week.”

He said the cause of the fire was not known. It was reported about 4:25 p.m., at one mile west of Thorp, which is 10 miles northwest of Ellensburg.

Two helicopters were used to fight the fire before dark.

Meanwhile, the 800 firefighters and support crews on Saturday managed to contain the 18,300-acre Timberline fire near Omak on the Colville Indian Reservation.

“We had cooler temperatures today and less wind and that enabled us to get the line completed,” said spokeswoman Debbie Kelly.

She said some bulldozers and fire engines were taken off the fire, as the mop-up stage began.

It has been estimated the fire, which has been burning a week, will be controlled by late Thursday.

Fires covered more than 38,000 acres of the state on Saturday, but most were in rural areas and did not threaten any homes.

The most potentially devastating fire, just outside the Wenatchee city limits, was extinguished late Friday without burning any homes.

“That was a very good effort under very tough conditions to prevent dwellings from being lost,” said spokesman Bill Carlton of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Other fires continued to burn near Goldendale and Wilbur.

A huge grass fire covered about 20,000 acres, an area of about 6 square miles, 10 miles south of the town of Wilbur, said Carlton.

The fire was burning in largely empty grass and sagebrush country, and was being held in place by fire crews, Carlton said. No homes were threatened.

Firefighters are worried about rising winds and low humidity, Carlton said.

“Those are very good burning conditions,” he said.

Near Goldendale, in southcentral Washington, a 500-acre fire was being attacked by 248 firefighters and 20 trucks. About one-third of the burned area was timber, and crews were anxiously watching the winds. The fire was 85 percent contained, officials said.

“It’s a classic wind-driven fire, long and narrow,” said Margi Gromek of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Wenatchee fire covered only about 47 acres, but it was attacked by 150 firefighters from several agencies.

Like the 1992 Castlerock Fire, which destroyed 32 homes and apartments in Wenatchee, this blaze was caused by kids playing with matches, said Phil Mosher, battalion chief from Chelan County Fire District No. 1. He was unsure if criminal charges would be pursued.

No structures were burned, but 15 to 20 apple trees in an orchard were lost.

U.S. Forest Service officials signed an order banning campfires in national forests and on state and private lands in the state’s northeastern corner, except in developed campgrounds.

The order came as thousands of campers headed to the woods for the holiday. There are also fire-related restrictions on timber cutting in the region. In northeast Oregon, military reinforcements arrived Saturday to supplement and relieve some of the tired, dusty firefighters on the fire lines. Favorable weather and very little wind kept growth in check on the three main blazes that have burned through 88,700 acres in the Malheur and Umatilla National Forests. That gave firefighters a chance to burn out some areas and tie some containment lines together, said Doug Decker, a spokesman at the Blue Mountain Unified Area Command in Ukiah.

Fire officials estimate the Tower and Bull fires will be contained within 10 days.

The arrival of Marines and Army firefighting crews brought smiles to those at the fire camps, Decker said.

“They’re going to be very welcomed here,” he said. “We can certainly use them as long as they can stay.”

U.S. Forest Chief Jack Ward Thomas is spending his Labor Day weekend visiting firefighters and sleeping at fire camps around the state.

He visited the Spring Fire camp in southwestern Oregon on Friday night, the Skeleton Fire in Bend on Saturday and was to spend the night at the Tower Fire camp Saturday and the Summit fire camp tonight.

Thomas wanted to thank the firefighters and show his confidence in their work, Decker said.

A retardant drop intended for the Tower Fire killed about 2,500 young rainbow trout on the Hidaway Creek on Thursday, said Craig Dixon, district ranger for the North Fork John Day Ranger District.

Helicopters are supposed to keep retardant drops at least 50 feet from waterways, but the pilot must have swung wide and missed, he said.

, DataTimes

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