High winds whip fires in Idaho, Montana, Washington; fire threat looms in California

By Carson Walker, AP
Thursday, August 26, 2010

High winds whip fires in several Western states

High winds fanned wildfires across at least three Western states Thursday, closing roads and forcing residents from their homes, and the threat of more blazes loomed in California.

The biggest threat to people and property was in central Idaho, where authorities asked residents living in homes or condominiums at the Tamarack Resort to clear out as firefighters battled to keep the wind-whipped flames at bay. Resort workers used snowmaking equipment to douse unburned areas of the mountain and air tankers dropped retardant.

An immediate evacuation was ordered earlier Thursday for subdivisions near the golf and ski resort. Hours later, deputies began making the rounds to the pricier properties at the resort in the mountains west of Donnelly, Idaho. Officials also started warning residents farther away to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if strong winds forecast for the region spread the 550-acre fire

“Some people have been told they need to leave right now,” said Madonna Lengerich, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. “Others are being told to be ready.”

There were no property damage reports, but that could change late Thursday when winds that have been blowing from the south are predicted to shift east, she said.

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

The blaze was one of several significant fires being fought across Idaho.

The Long Butte Fire burning in the southern Idaho desert was 50 percent contained Thursday after scorching more than 478 square miles of flat landscape populated by sagebrush and cheatgrass. The burn area includes the home range of a wild horse herd and about 75 percent of the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument.

Near Stanley, Idaho, in the central part of the state, more than 560 firefighters battled the Banner Fire, which has burned more than 2,000 acres. Fire managers said gaining ground may be a challenge, considering the forecast of high winds and thunderstorms.

A lightning storm that moved through the Boise, Idaho, area Thursday afternoon ignited several more wildfires, one of which threatened about 30 homes and other structures 25 miles northeast of Boise, said Dave Olson, forest spokesman.

In Montana, authorities ordered evacuations of more than two dozen homes when a prescribed burn near the Continental Divide in the Helena National Forest turned into an out-of-control wildfire. A half-dozen residents defied the order. Temperatures in the 90s and gusting winds caused the fire to grow from 200 acres to between 1,500 and 2,000 acres in just a few hours.

Winds gusting to more than 40 mph forced the temporary closure of the southbound lanes of State Route 195 four miles south of Pullman, Wash. The State Patrol said U.S. 2 at Davenport, Wash., reopened after the eastbound lane was closed because of a wildfire.

California’s southern coast got a break from a heat wave Thursday that sent temperatures into triple-digit temperatures a day earlier, but the fire danger was high because of gusty winds and declining humidity.

Strong winds expected late Thursday ahead of an approaching cold front and low humidity were expected to also create fire weather conditions for a swath from the Sierra Nevada to the state’s northeast corner.

Associated Press writers Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho; Nick Geranios in Seattle; Amy Hanson in Helena, Mont.; and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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