Hundreds evacuated as wildfire menaces Idaho ski resort towns

SALMON, Idaho Fri Aug 16, 2013 4:16pm EDT

SALMON, Idaho Aug 16 (Reuters) - Firefighters battled on Friday to check a fast-moving wildfire raging near the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho, where hundreds of people were evacuated as flames menaced multimillion-dollar homes in the area, authorities said.

The so-called Beaver Creek Fire, now the nation's top firefighting priority, has raced across 64,000 acres of mountains and canyons intersected by luxury housing developments since it was sparked by lighting in the Sawtooth National Forest nine days earlier, on Aug. 7.

Gene Ramsey, sheriff of Blaine County, said deputies have gone door to door to tell occupants of more than 225 dwellings to leave without delay. Others are being told to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice.

The fire is one of dozens of destructive blazes in Western states, many of them fed by drought conditions, higher than usual temperatures and fierce winds.

On Friday near the Idaho ski resort, in the state's Wood River Valley, plumes of smoke towered over the area, at the height of a summer recreation season that drives the local economy.

U.S. Forest Service and other fire crews had lost ground against the blaze by Friday morning, with a containment estimate of 11 percent on Wednesday dropping to 9 percent.

One flank of a blaze edged closer on Friday to the tourist town of Ketchum, just minutes from the Sun Valley resort, which fire officials said faced no immediate threat.

In the town of Hailey foot traffic was light as thick smoke reduced visibility, hampering driving on the highway that connects it and Ketchum. The sheriff said the road may face closure because of the approaching fire.

Air tankers were assigned to drop fire retardant near clusters of upscale homes nestled in subdivisions between Hailey and Ketchum, and fire engines were deployed to guard luxury residential developments whose homes can be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Carrie Morgridge, owner of Hailey Coffee Company, reported a slight dip in customers on Thursday evening but said business owners and residents were taking the situation in stride.

"We live in a place that has a fire season. We deal with it," she said.

Elsewhere in Idaho, fire crews were gaining ground on a blaze menacing two mountain resort towns in the Boise National Forest about 70 miles east of the state capital. The so-called Elk Complex fire near the south central Idaho communities of Pine and Featherville has consumed 38 houses and 43 other buildings outside city limits.

Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell were expected to tour the two wildfires by air on Friday. (Editing by Steve Orlofsky)