More wildfire evacuations feared as winds fan flames in Washington state

SEATTLE Tue Aug 5, 2014 2:34pm EDT

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - Crews battling to contain a wildfire burning close to a city in Washington state said stronger winds forecast for Tuesday could push flames into surrounding canyons, and urged people to be ready for more evacuations.

About 180 homes closest to the so-called Snag Canyon blaze remained under evacuation orders, while residents in Ellensburg, a city of about 18,000 people east of the Cascade mountains, feared their homes could be at risk, fire officials said.

"We are getting a lot of calls from people worried, and from people in the evacuation zone" said Rose Schriner, a spokeswoman with the Kittitas County Emergency Operations Center. "It's supposed to get windy this afternoon, so the concern now is (flames) moving canyon to canyon."

Six homes and 10 outbuildings have already burned outside Ellensburg, about 10 miles away from the leading edge of the fire, and officials hoped agricultural irrigation systems could be used as defense against a potential expansion into the town center.

The West Coast fire season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October, is on track to be one of the busiest and most destructive in recent history, experts said.

Extreme drought in California and abnormally dry conditions across Oregon, Washington and Idaho have made parched forests and vegetation easy kindling for wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

California has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of wildfires this year and 44 percent more acres have burned than in the past five years on average, said CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.

More than a dozen blazes were raging in the state - the two most challenging the 39,850-acre Bald fire and the 28,600-acre Eiler fire burning about eight miles from each other in California's northeast, threatening dozens of homes in the small town of Burney, Tolmachoff said.

In Oregon, 3,500 firefighters were battling blazes covering more than 84,000 acres of forestlands across the state on Tuesday, hoping cooler weather would aid containment efforts.

About 270 homes are on stand-by awaiting possible evacuation orders near Oregon's border with California, where a fire in Siskiyou Mountains has destroyed six homes, the Oregon Department of Forestry said on Tuesday.

Near the Idaho border, the tiny community of Imnaha was evacuated on Tuesday as a 4,000-acre fire threatened the homes of the 160 people who live there, Oregon fire officials said.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle and Courtney Sherwood in Portland; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)

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