Rain could bring relief to Beaver Creek Fire

As Western blazes rage, the Forest Service shifts money around to pay for firefighting.

STATESMAN STAFF AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESSAugust 22, 2013 

Danger eased Wednesday for several Central Idaho resort towns threatened for days by a 169-square-mile wildfire. That allowed managers to give some weary firefighters a break and consider sending them to tackle other late-summer blazes that continue to flare up elsewhere within the state and across the West.

The Beaver Creek Fire near Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley was 47 percent contained, with more progress expected through Thursday. Storms are forecast to bring rain to the region about 120 miles northeast of Boise.

Some 1,000 homes in this posh resort region remain under evacuation orders, however, a reminder of the intensity with which the blaze advanced after being touched off by lightning Aug. 7.

Those allowed to return to their homes were told to remain on alert, given conditions remain parched.

Officials say it's a miracle only one home was lost on Greenhorn Road north of Hailey. The homes had not been cleared of vegetation and treated to make them resistant to fire, even though they're located near the edge of the 2007 Castle Rock Fire.

Sun Valley officials were able to get some homeowners to participate in the program, but plants later grew back, increasing the fire danger, Mayor DuWayne Briscoe said. Nearby in Ketchum, firefighters had only limited success. Many homeowners liked the look of vegetation close to homes, Fire Chief Mike Elle said.

OTHER IDAHO FIRES

- Thirteen homes near the town of Weippe in the state's heavily forested north-central mountains were evacuated ahead of a small but unpredictable blaze, called the Incendiary Fire, started Sunday by lightning.

- In the Boise National Forest near the historic mining town of Atlanta, a crew of more than 150 firefighters was battling the 14-square-mile Little Queens Fire after it made a run south toward cabins and homes. A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for Atlanta, given its remote location and difficulty for residents leaving the area on forest roads.

Spurred by winds and fed by unusually dry fuels, the Little Queens Fire prompted a closure order for portions of the Boise and Sawtooth national forests. The blaze remained uncontained but fire officials said the erratic behavior it exhibited Tuesday had calmed Wednesday.

- Several structures east of Boise burned Tuesday night, though firefighters had control of that wildfire Wednesday. The Highland Alley Fire, estimated at just less than a square mile, remained under investigation. It started off Idaho 21, near Lucky Peak Reservoir.

- The Elk Complex Fire near Pine is now 85 percent contained. The lightning-caused fire has burned 205 square miles of timber, brush and grass. A total of 450 firefighters are continuing to battle the blaze and perform mop-up duties.

FOREST FUNDS MOVED

Running out of money to fight wildfires at the peak of the season, the U.S. Forest Service is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap.

The nation's top wildfire-fighting agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million so far this year, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said Wednesday in an email.

The $50 million the Forest Service has left is typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.

There are 51 large uncontained fires burning across the nation, making it tough to meet demands for fire crews and equipment.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell asked regional foresters to come up with cuts by Friday.

"I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public whom we serve and on our many valuable partners, as well as agency operations, target accomplishments and performance," he wrote. "I regret that we have to take this action."

It was the sixth time the Forest Service has had to divert funds since 2002, Chambers said.

The step comes as the Obama administration has been cutting spending on thinning national forests to prevent wildfires, and despite Congress creating a special wildfire reserve fund in 2009, known as the FLAME Act. Congress dedicated $413 million to the reserve in fiscal 2010, but cut it to $290 million in 2011 and raised it to $315 million in fiscal 2012, according to Forests Service documents. This year it dropped to $299 million after sequestration.

FIREFIGHTING COSTS MOUNT

Wildfire spending by other federal agencies takes the total to $1.2 billion so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That is more than half last year's total of $1.9 billion, and fast-approaching the 10-year average of $1.4 billion. There have been 33,000 fires that have burned more than 5,300 square miles - nearly the size of Connecticut.

The Obama administration has proposed to cut spending even further on thinning federal forests to reduce fire danger. The acreage treated would drop from 1.8 million acres in 2012 to 685,000 acres next year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program was $500 million last year, went down to $419 million this year under the automatic budget cuts, and has been proposed to go to $292 million next year.

"The fires that are ripping through Oregon and Idaho and California and the West are just proof that the fire prevention policy is broke," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, who was in Boise on Tuesday.

"There are years of neglect," Wyden said. "The fuel load builds up and it gets hotter and hotter on the forest floor. Then you get something like a lightning strike and a big inferno. Then the bureaucracy takes money from the prevention fund to put the fires out and the problem gets worse. The cycle just repeats itself again and again."

Christopher Topik, a director of Restoring America's Forests for The Nature Conservancy, said he could not fault Tidwell for diverting money to wildfires.

"We can't allow our towns and forests to all burn down," he said. "It's also irresponsible not to fund (prevention efforts) because it is an expected disaster."

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