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News >  Idaho

Wildfire forces evacuation of small town

Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – Residents of the tiny southwest Idaho town of Murphy Hot Springs were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a nearby wildfire.

That blaze – and another that burned desert rangeland on the southeast edge of the sprawling Idaho National Laboratory reservation – were among the most dramatic wildfires burning across the state. The INL fire was declared contained Thursday night, after blackening 14 square miles of sagebrush and grassland in about 24 hours. No damage was reported at the nuclear research and cleanup facility.

The Rowland blaze, burning across nearly 200 square miles near the Nevada border, was threatening 50 homes, eight commercial buildings and about 20 outbuildings in Murphy Hot Springs, said Brock Astle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The danger prompted Owyhee County Sheriff Gary Aman to issue a mandatory evacuation order for the small town, dispatcher Bev White said.

The order remained in effect late Thursday night for the community of about 100 people, another dispatcher said. She declined to give her name.

Three deputies were sent to the area to help firefighters make sure that nobody went back to the town until the order was lifted, White said. Residents in the nearby hamlet of Jarbidge, Nev., were also told to leave because authorities feared the fire could cut off all access to the town.

The Rowland fire started with a lightning strike on July 16.

About 50 firefighters managed to contain the rangeland fire at the 890-square-mile Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, U.S. Department of Energy officials said. Roughly 700 workers at the lab’s Materials and Fuels Complex were told to stay home Thursday because of highway closures due to the blaze. The Idaho State Police intermittently closed U.S. Highway 20 to give crews room to strengthen a fire break designed to keep the fire from jumping the highway. The highway was open Thursday night.

Fire bosses fighting the Rowland fire and others were scrambling to find additional helicopters and firefighters.

“We’re searching for more crews and waiting in line for them to become available,” said Astle, a spokesman for the BLM’s Twin Falls Fire District. “I think we’re in the same boat that a lot of places are.”

Besides the Rowland fire, the district was also fighting the Elk Mountain fire, Astle said. That fire, spanning an estimated 250 square miles or 160,000 acres and about 10 percent contained, was threatening about 10 ranch homes, he said.

Though Thursday’s slightly lower temperatures – in the 90s – brought some relief to fire crews across the West, the break wasn’t expected to last, said spokesman Ken Frederick with the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center. A high pressure system centered over the western states was expected to keep temperatures high for the next seven days, he said.

“Over the last four days we’ve had over 1,400 new fires start” around the West, Frederick said. Though many of the fires were caught and contained while they were still small, a number of them have grown substantially, he said. The number of fires, combined with the projected hot temperatures for the next week, prompted officials to raise the national wildfire preparedness level to level five, the highest. That rating allows fire managers to request help from international crews, although Frederick said none has been requested so far.

Crews working the Wood Creek fire 18 miles southeast of Boise were among those impacted by a shortage of resources.

“We’re drafting for more hand crews and more resources – we’d like to get another helicopter because it’s in really steep terrain – but no one has them to give right now,” said Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokeswoman. Burning on nearly four square miles of grass and brush-covered land, the Wood Creek fire was still relatively small Thursday. But Gardetto said the blaze was racing toward Danskin Mountain where fire managers feared it would threaten lookout towers and other buildings.

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