Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Flurry of fires scorch Idaho

State's blazes are country's top fire-fighting priority

Express Staff Writer

A helicopter gathers water to douse flames from the King of the West fire, which was burning 20 acres Tuesday near Dollarhide Summit, about 25 miles west of Ketchum. Photo by George Martin

Ten large wildfires continued to burn Tuesday in Idaho—the most in the country—including a relatively small blaze west of Ketchum.

Fires have ravaged the state over the past week, burning through both high- and low-elevation terrain. Eight of the country's 13 most serious fires are located in Idaho, and three are within striking distance of Grangeville, located in Idaho County above the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers.

While fire activity from Stanley south to Twin Falls has been relatively quiet this season, conditions have heated up. A huge fire rapidly charred more than 24,000 acres of sage and grass near Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve southeast of Carey late last week, before being contained on Friday. Two small fires sparked up in the Sawtooth Wilderness last week, and the King of the West fire was burning 20 acres Tuesday near Dollarhide Summit, about 25 miles west of Ketchum, at the top of the Warm Springs drainage.

Discovered Sunday morning, the King of the West was fought aggressively with three 20-man crews aided by fire-retardant drops from six single-engine air tankers and three helicopters. The fire, which is believed to be human-caused, did not gain much ground on Monday and Tuesday and fire officials hoped to have it contained by Tuesday night. It was named after an old mine in the area.

Randy Richter, a forest fire management officer for the Sawtooth National Forest, said the fire was burning heavy timber in steep terrain. He added that its proximity to dry, beetle-killed pines added an extra sense of urgency to suppressing the flames.

Farther north, Idaho County is currently under a state of emergency with four large wildfires, including the top two priorities in the country, burning its lands. Three of the fires are within 26 miles of Grangeville. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne issued the state of emergency on Friday.

The nation's top priority is the China Ten fire, which has charred 1,859 acres of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in the Nez Perce National Forest about 15 miles east of Grangeville. A Type 2 Incident Management Team—Type 1 is the largest—was working the fire with 406 firefighters. The fire was 35 percent contained Tuesday morning, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Just six miles south of Grangeville, the Blackerby fire was burning more than 4,800 acres and threatening homes, power lines and endangered-species habitat. A Type 2 Incident Management Team and 725 firefighters were battling the blaze. As of early Tuesday, it was 40 percent contained.

The West Fork fire, located 26 miles south of Grangeville on the Nez Perce National Forest, was about 400 acres in size on Tuesday morning. Some 295 firefighters had contained 40 percent of the fire by Tuesday morning, also according to the Fire Center.

The Long Ruggles fire was burning 4,476 acres in timber and brush 22 miles southwest of Craigmont, in Idaho County. The fire was in steep, rocky terrain, which was hampering the efforts of the 378 firefighters and threatening to burn prime big-game winter habitat. It was 40 percent contained and being managed by a Type 2 team.

A 2,400 acre fire was burning on Salmon-Challis National Forest land 15 miles west of North Fork on Tuesday. The Cadagan Complex fire was 60 percent contained, but still threatened homes and commercial property. Some roads were closed on Tuesday and nearby communities were under a blanket of smoke, according to the Fire Center. The blaze was being battled by 591 firefighters.

Three other large wildfires—fires burning at least 100 acres in timber, or 300 acres in sage and grass, are classified as large incidents—were burning in the Clearwater National Forest.

Two Wildland Fire Use blazes—managed and allowed to burn to accomplish resource objectives—were located 30 miles east of Lowell on the Nez Perce National Forest and 31 miles west of Shoup in the Payette National Forest.

Late last week, the Laidlaw Butte Fire charred 24,800 acres of sage and grass about 14 miles southeast of Carey. Some 150 firefighters battled the blaze—contained Friday—at its peak. About 1,000 acres of the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve burned, while the rest was on Bureau of Land Management land.

Sky Buffat, public affairs specialist for the BLM Twin Falls District, said the fire probably burned through some Native American cultural sites, "but I don't know of any losses." The fire is believed to be human-caused.

The Sawtooth Wilderness experienced two small wildfires late last week.

The Silver Creek fire, located two miles northeast of the lodge at Grandjean in the western Sawtooth Range, was sparked by lightning and burned 12 acres before it was controlled by six smokejumpers and two single-engine air tankers on Saturday.

The Fishhook Fire, located about four miles west of the Redfish Lake Lodge, was sparked after campers failed to extinguish their campfire. It burned a quarter acre before a crew of seven firefighters extinguished it last week.

But according to Richter, the Fishhook Fire flared up outside the original burn area on Monday morning, and charred another 1.5 acres. Richter said 12 firefighters, including a team of smokejumpers, would have the fire contained by Wednesday morning.

With several of the fires burning through Idaho believed to be human-caused, fire officials are urging people to be more careful.

Richter said the heavy spring rains have caused grasses to grow thicker and higher than normal. Now that they're drying out, the potential for large and fast moving wildfires is increasing.

"For the most part people have been really good on the (Sawtooth) Forest and we haven't had too many human-caused starts, and we appreciate that," Richter said. "We're getting late into the season and even though temperatures are moderating a little, it's still very dry and the potential for fires continues to exist.

Sheri Ascherfeld, of the Interagency Fire Center, said officials are preparing for the worst.

"Overall there is a lot of concern for the state of Idaho," she said. "If we don't get any moisture, the fire season could stretch into the fall."

Ascherfeld said the long-term projections are calling for above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation for Idaho through August—a bad combination. She said fuels will continue to dry out both in low and high elevations, and dry lighting strikes or other triggers could create catastrophic wildfires.

"We're digging in for the long haul," she said.

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