By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A massive Idaho wildfire forced hundreds of people from their homes on Sunday as high winds pushed the blaze to within miles of two communities.
Managers of the 260,000-acre Mustang Complex fire, ignited by lightning in July in mountainous pine forests dissected by steep, narrow canyons in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, prepared to defend threatened houses along a strategic stretch of highway near the two towns in east-central Idaho.
Fire trucks from a number of Idaho cities took up positions near the tiny towns of North Fork and Gibbonsville, which sit within a 21-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 93, near the Montana border.
"It's going to test us," fire information officer Bill Swartley said of the wildfire. "We will defend homes. But if it becomes a safety hazard to fire personnel, we will step aside and let the fire pass."
The Mustang Complex is one of several large fires burning mostly unchecked across the U.S. West in a destructive fire season that has already seen record-breaking fires in Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon.
A cold front bringing winds predicted to gust up to 45 miles per hour sparked the latest round of Idaho evacuations, centered on an estimated 400 residences and vacation homes. Authorities last week advised some residents to leave and others to be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice.
Fire engines were stationed at many properties. Houses with just one access road were to be guarded by hundreds of firefighters. Those crews were assigned to activate the gas-powered pumps of sprinkler systems when needed and then depart.
But not all were heeding the order to evacuate. Jon Cummings, co-owner of 100 Acre Wood Lodge, an upscale resort in North Fork, chose not to leave, and said he was slightly unnerved when authorities warned that emergency services may not be provided and asked him to identify his next of kin.
"It's possible that embers from the fire could rain down on us like who knows what, but we're keeping everything watered down," he said.
A firefighter was taken to a local hospital on Saturday but the extent of his injuries and his condition were unclear on Sunday. The blaze, manned by more than 1,100 fire personnel, is near a 2003 fire northwest of Salmon that overran and killed two young firefighters.
Many residents displaced by the Mustang Complex sought temporary housing with family and friends in Salmon, where the local Red Cross has opened a shelter.
On Sunday, Dorene and Bob Johnson scrambled to pack up belongings at the home north of Salmon they had been forced to flee last week. Dorene Johnson, a nurse, said the trip amid smoke and flames was harrowing.
"It was really traumatic for me to see the fire burning in our neighborhood," she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)