Wildfires wreak havoc in drought-choked Western states

AP News
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Posted: Aug 20, 2015 6:25 PM
Wildfires wreak havoc in drought-choked Western states

Wildfires rampaged across the drought-choked West on Thursday as authorities scrambled for resources to beat back the flames.

The blazes took a deadly turn in Washington state, where three firefighters were killed and four more injured.

A look at large wildfires burning in several Western states:

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WASHINGTON

Authorities say three firefighters died after their vehicle crashed and was apparently caught by a "hellstorm" of flames as they battled a blaze in Washington state. Four other firefighters were injured near Twisp.

The news came after officials urged people in the popular outdoor-recreation centers of Twisp and Wintrop, in the scenic Methow River valley about 115 miles northeast of Seattle, to evacuate.

Firefighters on several fronts were fighting against wildfires advancing on towns in the north-central part of the state.

A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 50 square miles and prompted the evacuation of Conconully, home to about 200 people — with further urgent evacuation orders issued Wednesday night for an area south of Conconully to the Omak town line.

Authorities warned that more high winds Thursday could make conditions very challenging. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the eastern portion of the state until 5 p.m. Friday. Officials said temperatures will climb above 90 degrees and relative humidity will drop as low as 14 percent.

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CALIFORNIA

There were 15 wildfires burning in California, with more than 11,000 firefighters on the front lines as crews contend with abnormally high temperatures for the season and drought-stressed fuels that haven't burned in 30 years.

Among the blazes is a fast-moving grass fire that has scorched nearly 4 square miles of dry brush near Livermore. At least one unoccupied home was destroyed in the rural area Wednesday.

The Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area, a popular motorbike terrain park, was evacuated after the flames were reported Wednesday afternoon. The fire is about 25 percent contained.

A blaze burning for nearly three weeks on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada surged in size in a recreation area outside Kings Canyon National Park where more than 2,500 campers, hikers, employees and residents have been evacuated this week. It has scorched 50 square miles.

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OREGON

High winds forecast for an area of eastern Oregon where a wildfire has destroyed three dozen homes have prompted more evacuation orders, officials said Thursday.

Red flag warnings concerning winds that could cause rapid spread of wildfires were posted across central Oregon and into eastern Washington, as the forecast called for a dry cold front with winds gusting to 40 mph from the Cascade crest to the east.

Wind and fire potential were expected to decrease across most of the region during the weekend.

After burning for a week, the fire 150 miles east of Portland was 10 percent contained at 85 square miles, with no date in sight for full containment. Much of the burning has been in Malheur National Forest.

Authorities dispatched more than 250 new people to fight the blaze, increasing personnel to more than 900.

With so many blazes burning across the West, the fire slid from the top of the national wildfire priorities list.

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IDAHO

Firefighters battling blazes in Idaho braced for tough conditions Thursday with temperatures expected in the 90s along with winds of 25 mph and low humidity.

Nearly 700 firefighters supported by 39 fire engines and aircraft continue to work on a group of fires near Kamiah in northern Idaho that has destroyed 42 homes. But containment is only 30 percent on the fires that have scorched 61 square miles.

In west-central Idaho, federal officials closed a portion of the Payette National Forest due to a 10-square-mile fire burning about 20 miles northwest of McCall.

Local authorities have lifted evacuation notices along the U.S. Highway 95 corridor.

Fire officials say fire lines were bolstered overnight but list the fire as having no containment due to heavy fuel loads in the area and expected strong winds.

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MONTANA

Authorities closed a major transportation corridor on Glacier National Park's southern boundary as crews worked to prevent a wildfire from spreading to the small Montana community of Essex.

The fire was burning in the Great Bear Wilderness, about 2 1/2 miles south of Essex. Embers falling on U.S. highway 2 forced officials to close a 7-mile stretch of the roadway and Burlington Northern Santa Fe's main northern rail line. BNSF officials said an average of 30 to 35 trains a day travel that railway, including passenger trains and cargo trains carrying oil, coal and agricultural products.

Flathead County officials notified 106 residents in and around Essex that they must prepare to leave, recommending they begin loading their cars immediately, county emergency information officer Jennifer Rankosky said.

There are 200 threatened structures, according to fire officials, which include homes and the Izaak Walton Inn. The privately owned lodge was built in 1939 and is an attraction for cross-country skiers and visitors to Glacier park, whose border is just on the other side of the highway.

BNSF officials have brought in a fire suppression train from Spokane, Washington, and 40,000-gallon tanker cars filled with water to protect its property and assist firefighters' efforts, spokesman Matt Jones said. BNSF has a rail yard with equipment next to the Izaak Walton Inn, snow sheds and a bridge over nearby Sheep Creek.