Fire managers wary of weather

Storms bringing gusty winds, lightning and possibly rain could complicate firefighting efforts around Idaho.

STATESMAN STAFF AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESSAugust 23, 2013 

More than 450 square miles are on fire in Idaho, and some fire managers are nervous that predicted thunderstorms could cause that number to grow.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of Idaho, with thunderstorms and lightning expected Thursday night and gusty winds Friday. That poses potential risks for firefighters, with flash flooding possible on some recently burned areas and the danger of fires being pushed into new regions by wind.

John Zapell, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said the Little Queens fire in central Idaho had grown to about 16 square miles by Thursday morning and the flames were within three miles Atlanta. The community remains under an evacuation order, and hotshot crews are working to build a fire line to keep the flames from advancing any closer to homes.

An inversion in the area kept the fire fairly quiet through most of Thursday morning, Zapell said, but the sun peeked out later in the day and firefighters saw flames increase.

Jennifer Costich, a fire information officer at the Incendiary Complex burning in north central Idaho near Weippe, said crews there were also nervous about impending storms.

"They will bring erratic winds and potential downdrafts, so we are concerned about spotting across our fire lines or across Lolo Creek," Costich said. "We will have a couple of days of fire line testing ahead of us until we know those containment lines are actually secure."

So far, fire crews had been able to build an initial containment line on the southern flank of the 1Ω square mile fire, the area nearest about 13 evacuated homes. Still, Costich said, fire managers would consider the blaze uncontained for at least a day or two, until they know those lines will hold.

Crews continued to make progress on Idaho's biggest blaze, the 172-square-mile Beaver Creek fire, which threatens the resort towns of Sun Valley, Hailey and Ketchum.

A statement from fire managers said more than 1,700 firefighters had the fire 67 percent contained by Thursday night, and some residents have been allowed back home though authorities warned them to remain cautious and ready to leave if the fire changes. Nearly 600 homes were still under a mandatory evacuation order.

Meghan Stump, a Beaver Creek fire information officer, said the fire behavior remained relatively calm Thursday.

"The relative humidity is great - it's really a nice, peaceful day with a lot of work getting done," Stump said.

By mid-evening Thursday, no rain had been reported. The storm that struck the Treasure Valley earlier passed to the north of the fire, spokeswoman Margo Whitt said. There was some added wind but there wasn't any reported lightning that could have started new fires.

YOSEMITE AREA

A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park in California more than tripled in size Thursday, shutting down businesses in surrounding communities and leading scores of tourists to leave the area during peak season.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the huge fire, one of several blazes burning in or near the nation's national parks and one of 50 major uncontained fires burning across the western U.S.

Fire officials said the blaze near Yosemite, which threatens several thousand homes, hotels and camp buildings, had grown to more than 84 square miles and was only 2 percent contained Thursday, down from 5 percent a day earlier. Two homes and seven outbuildings have been destroyed.

While the park remains open, the blaze has caused the closure of a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side, devastating areas that live off of park-fueled tourism.

Officials have advised voluntary evacuations of the gated summer community of Pine Mountain Lake, population 2,800, other area residences, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds. More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about five miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

"Usually during summer, it's swamped with tourists, you can't find parking downtown," said Christina Wilkinson, who runs Groveland's social media pages and lives in Pine Mountain Lake. "Now, the streets are empty. All we see is firefighters, emergency personnel and fire trucks."

Though Wilkinson said she and her husband are staying put - for now - many area businesses have closed and people who had vacation rental homes are cancelling plans, local business owners said.

"This fire, it's killing our financial picture," said Corinna Loh, whose family owns the still-open Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland. "This is our high season and it has gone to nothing, we're really hurting."

Loh said most of her employees have left town. And the family's Spinning Wheel Ranch, where they rent cabins to tourists, has also been evacuated because it's directly in the line of fire. Two outbuildings have burned at the ranch, Loh said, and she still has no word whether the house and cabins survived.

YELLOWSTONE

In Yellowstone National Park, five wildfires have been burned about 18 square miles of mostly remote areas 25 years after the infamous 1988 fires that burned more than 1,200 square miles inside Yellowstone, or more than a third of the park.

The vast areas that burned that year remain obvious to anybody who drives through. The trees in the burn areas are a lot shorter.

This summer's fires haven't been anywhere near that disruptive. The biggest fire in Yellowstone, one that has burned about 12 square miles in the Hayden Valley area, for a time Tuesday closed the road that follows the Yellowstone River between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village.

Anybody who needed to travel between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village faced a detour through the Old Faithful area that added 64 miles to the 16-mile drive.

By Wednesday, the road had reopened. Later that day, half an inch of rain fell on the fire.

Park officials had been making preliminary plans to evacuate Lake Village, an area five miles south of the fire with a hotel, lodge, gas station and hospital. Any threat to that area appeared less likely now.

A few trails and parking areas along the Yellowstone River remained closed in case the fire flares up again and the area needs to be evacuated, park officials said.

Smoke from the fires has been blowing into Cody, Wyo., a city of about 10,000 people 50 miles east of Yellowstone.

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