Crews conduct burnouts around Pine

The Treasure Valley gets a reprieve from smoke - but only temporarily.

STATESMAN STAFF AND WIRE REPORTSAugust 14, 2013 

Fire crews in central Idaho capitalized on favorable winds Tuesday to continue burnout operations around a small mountain community, seeking to push a wildfire toward an area torched by a massive blaze last year.

Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman on the lightning-caused Elk Complex Fire burning on more than 140 square miles (more than 98,000 acres) near Pine, said burnout efforts that began Monday evening worked just as planned: consuming dry, flammable vegetation as the wildfire stayed higher on the ridgeline above town. The fire was 10 percent contained Tuesday night.

Crews prepared all day Tuesday for another burnout, slated to begin around sunset when temperatures drop, humidity rises and winds calm.

"Everything seems to be going smoothly," Bond said. Winds from the southeast were pushing active flames toward areas charred last year in the big Trinity Ridge Fire, where there was less fuel to be consumed, he said.

No buildings burned in Pine or Featherville, though fire managers said the Elmore County Sheriff's Office identified 71 structures that had burned within the Elk Complex Fire area. They said the exact type of structures had not been determined as of late Tuesday. Officials said 53 of the structures were identified in an assessment of Fall Creek, a little community several miles to the south of Pine on the Anderson Ranch Reservoir where the flames rolled through on Saturday.

Similar burnout operations were being done to the southwest on the nearby Pony Complex that has torched 225 square miles (nearly 144,000 acres) of sagebrush, grass and pine forest. That fire was 40 percent contained Tuesday evening, officials said.

Four new lightning-caused wildfires also started in Idaho on the Bureau of Land Management's territory in Owyhee County, about 30 miles south of Boise. They were burning in rough terrain, and no structures were threatened.

The Elk Complex remains among the nation's top wildfire fighting priorities, since Pine and the neighboring mountain hamlet of Featherville, eight miles from the flames, remain threatened.

Additional water-dropping helicopters and fire crews were arriving to tackle the blaze, which likely won't be out for months until fall rains and snow arrive.

A mandatory evacuation of Pine and Featherville remained in effect, with roads leading to the communities closed with barricades and staffed by law enforcement. "There will still be a lot of fire activity," Bond said.

Idaho Power crews continued to try to restore electric service to Prairie, Pine and Featherville, with four crews working 16-hour days. Customers seeking updates should call the utility at 388-2323 or 800-488-6150, follow @idahopower on Twitter or visit facebook.com/idahopower.

In Boise, a Monday night storm blew away some of the haze from the wildfires. But Dave Groenert, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the slightly more-clear air would not last.

"(Tuesday night) we're going to get that inversion again, as we do every night, and it's going to settle back down," he said.

After midnight Tuesday, a northwestern drainage wind will suck smoke into the Snake River Valley near Mountain Home. Then a southeast wind will push it up to Boise.

But there's still hope for clear skies, he said.

"If the inversion breaks, and if we are smoked in, it could clear up some," Groenert said.

High winds or rain could also prove successful in ridding the valley of haze.

But Groenert said there is scant chance of precipita-tion in the upcoming days.

Nationwide, 35 large active fires were burning Tuesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. All are in the Western United States, where much of the region is in the grips of a drought that has produced extreme fire behavior.

Even so, fewer than 3 million acres have burned this year in U.S. wildfires, the NIFC reported. That's well down from the 5.9 million acres that had burned by this time last year and 6.3 million acres that had burned through mid-August in 2011.

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