Firefighting costs surpass $1 billion; alert at highest level

Fire managers say it will take a major commitment of resources to handle the large number of wildfires.

STATESMAN STAFF AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESSAugust 21, 2013 

  • WESTERN WILDFIRE COSTS TO DATE

    Big Windy Complex: Oregon, 19,598 acres, 1,017 personnel, $21.8 million.

    Lodgepole Fire: Idaho, 22,753 acres, 84 personnel, $19.4 million.

    Butler Fire: California, 16,776 acres, 1,005 personnel, $18.5 million.

    Beaver Creek Fire: Idaho, 104,461 acres, 1,749 personnel, $11.6 million.

    American Fire: California, 14,822 acres, 1,813 personnel, $10.8 million.

    Conrad Lake Fire: Washington, 925 acres, 604 personnel, $3 million.

    Government Flat Complex: Oregon, 5,000 acres, 714 personnel, $1.4 million

    Nimrod Fire: Montana, 604 acres, 289 personnel, $1.2 million.

    Source: National Interagency Fire Center in Boise

Wildfires burning in Idaho, Oregon and Montana are taxing national firefighting resources and pushing up spending.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday upped the wildfire preparedness level to the top for the first time in five years and listed two central Idaho wildfires as the country’s top priorities.

About 1,250 homes remain evacuated in the resort area of Ketchum and Sun Valley due to the 160-square-mile Beaver Creek Fire.

About 50 miles west, the tiny mountain town of Atlanta is under pre-evacuation orders due to the 12-square-mile Little Queens Fire burning through timber about four miles away. Only about 65 firefighters have made it to the remote area so far.

President Barack Obama was briefed Tuesday morning on the wildfires by his homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco. The White House said the administration’s focus is on supporting state and local first responders and that Obama’s team is in ongoing contact with federal and local partners.

More than 40 uncontained, active and large wildfires dot the U.S. map from Arizona to Washington state and Alaska, the White House said. About 17,800 people have been dispatched to the fires.

Steve Gage, assistant director of operations for the fire center, said that not all the requests for crews and equipment from the 48 fires that remain uncontained around the country can be filled.

Gage said as fire season progresses, the center moves crews around to where the greatest assets, such as houses, are threatened, and tries to have crews positioned to catch new fires when they are small.

The last time the National Interagency Fire Center raised its preparedness level to five was July 2008. Center spokeswoman Tina Boehle said the designation also means the military can be asked to take part and that U.S. officials can call on international partners for firefighting help. She said those partners include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

BEAVER CREEK FIRE

About 1,200 personnel are assigned to the Beaver Creek Fire that through Monday has cost $11.6 million. The fire is 30 contained, and fire managers say favorable weather combined with retardant drops and more firefighters arriving in the past few days have them continuing to feel optimistic.

“After we were raised in priority, we started getting a lot more crews in, and now we have the resources to change our strategy to a much more direct one,” said fire spokesman Rudy Evenson.

Blaine County officials on Tuesday lifted a mandatory evacuation for residents from about 600 homes. In addition, residents in Sun Valley and the east side of Ketchum have been removed from pre-evacuation status. But another 6,100 homes remain on the pre-evacuation status.

Evenson described the shape of the Beaver Creek Fire as similar to the video game Pac-Man, with Ketchum between the jaws. He said firefighting efforts Tuesday focused on “working on Pac-Man’s lower teeth” about five miles south of Ketchum, and using the same tactic north of Ketchum, or what Evenson called “Pac-Man’s top teeth.”

“It’s going to be a lot of crews on the ground and a lot of hard work with saws, axes and shovels, supported again by aircraft,” he said. “There’s plenty of work still to be done. There’s a lot of fire line that needs to be built.”

Blaine County spokeswoman Bronwyn Nickel said residents have sensed a change.

“I think the tide has kind of turned,” she said Tuesday. “Yesterday afternoon I would say tensions were high. But I think today people are being a little more optimistic. They can kind of see the end of the road now. This happened at the height of our tourist season, so there’s some trepidation there.”

The lightning-caused fire started Aug. 7 and has destroyed one home and some outbuildings. Only a few minor injuries to firefighters have been reported.

LITTLE QUEENS FIRE

Fire officials said the Little Queens Fire, reported on Saturday, has been active with single torching and group torching of trees. A pre-evacuation order was changed back to mandatory evacuation Tuesday evening.

The blaze is expanding to the north and south, and is within two miles of Atlanta.

“They’re focusing a lot of the suppression activities on the south flank of the fire due to the proximity of Atlanta,” fire spokesman Jerry Rohnert said.

HIGHLAND ALLEY FIRE

More than 600 acres of grass, sagebrush and bitterbrush burned along Idaho 21 north of Lucky Peak Dam and the old Hilltop Cafe on Tuesday afternoon and evening. Six structures, including a barn, another outbuilding and a horse trailer, were destroyed.

Firefighters saved a home on the east side of the highway. The man who lived there evacuated after flames moved close.

“He stayed a while and then decided to leave after it became apparent the situation was becoming more dangerous,” said David Olson, spokesman for the Boise National Forest.

Idaho Power cut electricity to about 3,000 customers in Ada and Boise counties to protect its equipment and to prevent further fires as airplanes dumped fire retardant onto the blaze. Service was later restored.

Idaho 21 was closed in both directions at milepost 14 to allow crews access to the fire. By the middle of the evening, traffic was backed up several miles. Officials hoped to open the road later on Tuesday.

The fire burned on private land and U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property. Crews from those agencies and firefighters from Boise and Eagle city departments and the Valley of the Pines rural fire department all responded.

YELLOWSTONE

A wildfire in the heart of Yellowstone National Park has forced a temporary closure of a 13-mile section of the Grand Loop Road.

The section closed is between Fishing Bridge Junction and South Rim Drive of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

More firefighters are arriving to bolster defenses against the Alum Fire, which is close enough to facilities along the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake to cause some concern.

Started by lightning last week, the fire has burned about seven square miles.

SENATORS SPEAK OUT

Republican Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon held a news conference with fire officials at the center on Tuesday.

The senators emphasized the need for collaborative efforts among ranchers, timber companies, environmentalists and other groups in finding ways to reduce fire danger in the West through preventive measures. The senators also said changes needed to be made at the national level on forest management, and they would work to make those changes happen.

“In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden said.

Risch said timber harvest could help reduce fire danger.

“You have to deal with fuel loads,” Risch said. “Unfortunately, it turns to fuel when it’s past the time when it should be harvested.”

Also on Tuesday, fire officials reported that one of the nation’s two DC-10 jet retardant bombers returned to service. It has been inactive following an engine malfunction following a drop on Thursday on the Beaver Creek Fire. It returned safely to Pocatello, where the engine was replaced.

OREGON

In Oregon, winds that draw windsurfers to the Columbia Gorge have doubled the size of a wildfire to 10 square miles.

The Government Flat Fire burned two homes and threatens 150 more on the northern flanks of Mount Hood. Four days into the battle the cost has topped $1 million, said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Dave Morman. About 50 homes have been evacuated in the area, 10 miles southwest of The Dalles.

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