Bad Weather Means Tougher Firefighting Across Idaho, Montana

August 17, 2007

Hundreds of homes across Idaho remained threatened by wildfires this week, and meteorologists said firefighters shouldn’t expect any help from the weather.

More than 611,000 acres, or 954 square miles, had been scorched by 19 large wildfires in the state, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Scores of people have fled their homes, but officials faced the prospect of removing dozens of holdouts.

A low pressure system bringing high temperatures, wind gusts and thunderstorms with little promise of actual rainfall is predicted to sweep across Idaho’s smoky midsection and into Montana over the next five days, said Robyn Heffernen, a fire weather expert at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“In the near term, things aren’t looking too good,” said Heffernen, who echoed predictions of others that the fire season could stretch into November. “These storms aren’t carrying a lot of rain. And then the storms are going to be followed by wind, which is a bad combination.”

In Montana, at least 15 large fires are burning across about 604 square miles, mostly in the state’s western half.

A 149-acre fire in southern Montana near Columbus tore through the Pine Crest subdivision Tuesday evening, destroying several outbuildings but no homes. Residents who fled were allowed to return Wednesday evening as firefighters battled the blaze, which was 80 percent contained.

“The wind did pick up this afternoon, but it was blowing in a favorable direction,” fire information officer Jeff Bollman said. “It was basically pushing the fire away from the homes in the subdivision.”

Residents in the Seeley Lake area in western Montana were also allowed to return home Wednesday, ending a 10-day evacuation of more than 600 homes. A state highway also reopened, but other areas remained closed and officials were struggling to contain the Jocko Lakes fire, which has burned about 38 square miles.

Fires north and southeast of Missoula forced new evacuation orders for close to 100 homes and temporarily closed part of a federal highway.

Some residents have voluntarily left homes around the central Idaho town of Warm Lake in the Boise National Forest, as well as the communities of Secesh, Warren and South Fork in the Payette National Forest. Those communities are still at risk from a complex of fires that grew Tuesday to 260 square miles, said spokeswoman Kris Eriksen. Two unoccupied cabins and two other buildings have been destroyed.

Even though Warren remains surrounded by fires, Eriksen said, fire managers are hopeful the worst is behind them.

“Our critical fire days are behind us,” she said. “The threat isn’t over, but our structure protection is good. We’re feeling pretty good about the progress being made.”

This week, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter issued an order granting the Valley County sheriff the authority to remove holdouts in the small, historic mining town of Yellow Pine, near an 88-square-mile complex of fires.

A convoy helped more than two dozen residents evacuate. But Valley County Sheriff Patti Bolen says about three dozen residents, ranchers and business owners are ignoring warnings to get out, choosing to stay behind to protect their homes, stores, bars or livestock.

On Wednesday, firefighters escorted two lodge owners into and back out of the Warm Lake area to set up generators to keep food from spoiling. Idaho Power also delivered a portable generator to provide power to the holdouts, who have been without electricity since Sunday.

“They’re fairly independent-minded people,” said Capt. John Coombs, one of two deputies dispatched this week to persuade residents to evacuate. “They’ve lived through fires before.”

Sheriff’s officers asked holdouts to sign waivers of liability and provide deputies with the names of next of kin.

A fire at Yellowstone National Park spread beyond the park’s eastern boundary, and people at a lodge and a campground nearby were warned they may have to leave. The fire grew at least 1,000 acres Wednesday to reach 13,000 acres, or more than 20 square miles, fire information officer Terina Mullen said.

The park’s east entrance remained closed, requiring at least a 29-mile detour for tourists in Cody, Wyo., to get to the park by way of the northeast entrance on the Montana line.

In north-central Washington, a few hundred people fled the small community of Lucerne and the Holden Village Christian camp as a 6-square-mile complex of fires burned. The fire near Lake Chelan was 10 percent contained, burning in steep, rocky terrain where many trees have been killed by beetles and provide ready fuel for wildfires.

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