Wildfires menace towns in Idaho, California

SALMON, Idaho Thu Aug 16, 2012 9:05pm EDT

1 of 3. Smoke from the Trinity Ridge Fire rises over the mountains outside Pine, Idaho August 15 2012. Wildfires roared out of control across the sun-scorched U.S. West on Wednesday and threatened to engulf two small towns in Idaho as firefighters managed to partially dampen a monster blaze that has destroyed more than 60 homes in Washington state.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Losness

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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A wildfire roaring through mountainous terrain in Idaho's Boise National Forest headed toward a resort town on Thursday, as voluntary evacuations began and firefighters scrambled to make a last stand against the advancing flames.

The Idaho blaze, sparked by a utility vehicle that caught fire, has charred nearly 70,000 acres of sagebrush and woodlands east of Boise over the past six days, burning a rental cabin and six non-residential structures, authorities said.

The fire is one of dozens burning out of control across 10 drought-parched western states, including a blaze that destroyed more than 70 homes this week in Washington state and another that was threatening a town in Southern California.

So far this season, wildfires have consumed about 6.3 million acres (2 million hectares) across the country, over 1 million acres more than the 10-year average for this time of year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

On the western edge of the Northern Rockies, the so-called Trinity Ridge Fire crept toward the Idaho resort town of Featherville, where nearly 1,000 firefighters were gathered for a last-ditch effort to keep the flames at bay.

A column of smoke from the blaze settled over Featherville on Wednesday, cooling temperatures and slowing the fire's advance, fire information officer Lisa Machnik said.

But the leading edge of the blaze still moved a mile closer, to within 4 miles of town limits.

Efforts were concentrated on building fire breaks in and around Featherville, clearing brush from around houses and other structures and setting up sprinkler systems, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Arnold Hartigan said.

An estimated 1,000 people in Featherville and the nearby town of Pine braced for mandatory evacuation orders, but some residents of Featherville left on their own on Wednesday night.

Authorities reopened roads to incoming traffic for about 12 hours overnight and into Thursday morning to allow residents who had fled to return long enough to collect their belongings.

"We're trying to allow as many people as possible to preserve their memories by gathering up family photographs and other mementos and keep hold of those parts of their lives," Elmore County Sheriff's Office spokesman Gary Walker said.

Pat Christensen, co-owner of Cyndie's Featherville Cafe, said he and his wife intended to stay put for the time being to keep their lunch counter going.

"We're still open for business," he said, adding that he thought measures taken by fire crews were keeping them safe.

FIRE NEARS CALIFORNIA TOWN

In California, a dozen major blazes up and down the state were keeping more than 9,000 firefighters busy, with the greatest immediate danger facing the rural community of Ranchita, about 50 miles northeast of San Diego.

All 180 homes there were evacuated as lightning-sparked flames crept within a half mile of town, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Captain Mike Mohler said.

Hundreds of miles away in Northern California, a fire that blackened 43,000 acres near the town of Belden in the Plumas National Forest was threatening 900 homes, prompting some evacuations.

Another lightning-caused fire has devoured nearly 80,000 acres of forest along the California-Oregon border, prompting the evacuation of nearly 70 homes. But firefighters have managed to encircle about a third of the blaze.

One of the more destructive fires in recent weeks flared into its fourth day near the town of Cle Elum in northwestern Washington state. Authorities reported that 70-plus homes and more than 200 barns and other structures were charred this week.

More than 400 homes have been evacuated in the area, but firefighters managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the blaze's perimeter by Wednesday night, with full containment expected within a week, authorities said.

The Washington state blaze has scorched nearly 23,000 acres of rolling hills along the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries on Wednesday.

By far the largest current wildfire in the West, the Holloway Fire has blackened well over 430,000 acres since it was ignited by lightning in Nevada on August 5 and burned into southern Oregon two days later.

Fire authorities said the blaze was more than 70 percent contained.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash., Teresa Carson in Portland, Ore., and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Xavier Briand)

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