Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Idaho wildfires claim four lives

Potato Fire?s threat to Yankee Fork structures decreasing


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

The Yankee Fork Dredge near Stanley is shrouded in smoke as the Potato Fire burns through adjacent forest. Firefighters have determined the fire threat posed to historic structures in the Yankee Fork area is decreasing. Photo by David N. Seelig

Eleven wildfires continued to burn across Idaho Tuesday, two days after a helicopter crash killed three Forest Service workers and a pilot responding to a string of blazes in the Payette National Forest.

The cause of the crash, which occurred Sunday afternoon and killed everyone aboard, is under investigation. A complex of wildfires burning 11 square miles continues to threaten the small community of Yellow Pine.

Meanwhile, the Potato Fire, burning seven miles north of Stanley in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River basin, grew more than 7,200 acres since last Thursday, but the threat to historic structures in Custer and Bonanza, and to the historic Yankee Fork Dredge, is diminishing.

The blaze, which has charred 16,271 acres in grass, Douglas fir, and beetle-killed and healthy lodegepole pine forest, was 42 percent contained Tuesday.

"The risk to Bonanza and Custer is decreasing every day, but it's still a dangerous threat," said Don Carpenter, a public information officer with the Type 1 Broyles Incident Management Team, which is directing firefighting efforts. "We're becoming more optimistic."

On Monday night, favorable weather conditions allowed crews to conduct successful burnout operations—a controlled burn designed to reduce fuel and enhance containment lines—along the south end of Jordan Creek Road and northwest of Bonanza.

"They've been able to hold the fire at Jordan Creek; it has not crossed the drainage," Carpenter said.

Sparked July 27 near Potato Flats, the blaze ran north and east directly toward the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza. But by last weekend, the brunt of the fire's energy had run northwest of the historic area into Lightning Creek.

Carpenter said resources formerly positioned for structure protection near Bonanza have been freed up to support crews in Jordan Creek drainage.

The fire was expected to continue its advance east into Jordan Creek and Lightning Creek. However, afternoon thunderstorms, which are possible over the next couple days, could cause the blaze to spread unpredictably.

"Winds are still a concern, and isolated thunderstorms creating downdrafts could push the fire in any direction," Carpenter added.

The Zane Fire, a separate 218-acre wildfire burning a mile and a half from the Potato Fire's western edge, was not actively expanding. Difficult terrain, however, has hindered containment efforts.

A total of 690 people were fighting the two blazes on Tuesday, down from 767 personnel last week. Carpenter said some crews had been pulled off the blaze because they'd reached their 14-day limit, and replacements had yet to arrive.

Type 2 and Type 3 helicopters have transported more than 500 people and 170,000 pounds of cargo since firefighting operations began. Type 2 helicopters can hold a maximum of five people, while Type 3 helicopters are limited to two or three passengers, depending on weight and weather conditions.

"It's been a major air show with helicopters flying seven to eight hours a day," Carpenter said.

By Monday night, the blaze had cost $9.1 million.

"They're spending around $600,000 a day," Carpenter said.

Estimated containment has been set for Aug. 28.

The Boundary Fire, located 17 miles north of Stanley near the Boundary Creek launch site on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, was 10 percent contained at 477 acres on Tuesday. Boundary Creek Road is closed to the general public. Boaters with permits should contact the Middle Fork Ranger District office at (208) 879-4102 for vehicle shuttle and launch instructions.

A total of 195 people were battling the blaze, which was sparked by lightning Aug. 7.




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