Giant Pine-Featherville wildfire spreads, forces evacuations

Many residents were evacuated Sunday before flames reached them.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comAugust 12, 2013 

  • ROAD, AREA CLOSURES

    The Boise National Forest issued the following closures:

    - A large area on the east side from Road 181 to the junction with the Fairfield Ranger District, Sawtooth National Forest boundary, including the Pine/Featherville Road; north from Atlanta along the Middle Fork Boise Road (Forest Road 268) over to the Deer Park Rental Cabin; then west along Forest Road 327 to Idaho City and Idaho 21 on the west.

    - The Trinity Lakes Recreation area is closed.

    - The Middle Fork of the Boise River Road is open from the forest boundary only for residents of Twin Springs and Atlanta (as long as fire conditions allow).

For the second time in two summers, a giant wildfire is threatening the Pine-Featherville area, about 100 miles east of Boise. On Sunday night, the Elk Complex was burning up to homes on the west side of Anderson Ranch Reservoir near the Pine airstrip.

The Elk fires’ size, speed and threat to hundreds of homes and other structures made it the top complex of concern in the nation over the weekend, several fire information officers said Sunday. That means it’s a priority for resources.

“It ran six miles yesterday,” said Madonna Lengerich, a spokeswoman for the Elk Complex. “The plume was just unbelievably huge yesterday.”

It was imposing Sunday, too, an enormous billowing cloud of smoke and ash just over the ridge from Pine.

The smoke from the Elk and Pony complexes, as well as other fires in the region, is affecting air quality in the Treasure Valley. A yellow air quality alert has been issued for Monday, and all outdoor burning is banned in Ada and Canyon counties, and all cities in those counties.

Sunday morning, Elmore County sheriff’s deputies went from house to house between Pine and Featherville, from Johnson Bridge to the junction of Pine-Featherville Road.

In the afternoon, residents on Twin Pine Drive on the west side of Anderson Ranch Reservoir were packing vehicles and trailers while firefighters set up structure protection. At 5 p.m., the fire was about a mile and a half away from those homes and the Hayhurst Bed & Breakfast.

Firefighters filled large plastic “pumpkins,” or pools, with thousands of gallons of water, then connected hoses from the pumpkins to the sprinkler systems.

Diana Whitted, a year-round Pine resident, was packing up valuables — but not for herself. Friends who were out of town and couldn’t get back in time asked her to grab important documents and irreplaceable items.

Whitted said this year’s fire feels worse than last year’s because it spread faster. Others in Pine agreed.

“This is horrible,” said Danielle Stem, who sat with family and friends in the parking lot of the Pine Resort Cafe & Cocktails. “Last year’s was slow-moving. This year, it’s on us.”

Last summer’s Trinity Ridge Fire blackened nearly 150,000 acres north of Pine-Featherville. That fire was called “fast-moving,” and it charred less than 25,000 acres in its first week, according to published reports.

The Elk Complex burned more than 80,000 acres in a little more than three days. Surface winds were light in the Pine area over the last several days, with gusts no greater than 15 mph. But relatively strong southerly “transport winds” — the midlevel winds above the fire site — contributed to the blaze’s growth, National Weather Service lead forecaster Les Colin said.

Click here for an updated map of the Elk Complex closure area, announced Sunday by the Boise National Forest

Temperatures in that area were in the 80s, and the humidity dipped down to around 10 percent on Friday and Saturday. The western flank of the Elk Complex forced evacuations Friday in Prairie, and the eastern flank is what’s threatening the Pine-Featherville area.

The other major threat in the region is the Pony Complex, which by Sunday had burned more than 119,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 200 homes in Mayfield.

The Pony Complex destroyed two cabins and an outbuilding in Syrup Creek on Sunday morning, but multiple residences were saved, according to fire officials.

Officials said a shelter for evacuees was set up in Mountain Home, but none could be found on Sunday. Barbara Fawcett, a spokeswoman with the American Red Cross, said a reception area had been set up Friday and Saturday, but it was shut down due to little apparent need.

“What we find is that people have family and friends that they can stay with,” Fawcett said.

Bronco Motors owner Grant Petersen and his wife, Connie, spent the summers of their youth visiting Pine, and they’ve owned a home there for 19 years.

The couple packed treasured possessions, including photo albums, antiques and a door (which has markings of their kids’ height at different ages), into a trailer Sunday and headed back to Boise.

“This year seems more real to us,” Grant Petersen said. Added Connie, “It’s better safe than sorry.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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