Hot Weather Aids Fires in Oregon, Calif., Idaho

August 26, 2010

A wind-whipped wildfire burned through 11 homes outside an Oregon college town as hot, dry weather — with temperatures near 100 degrees — also helped fires spread in Idaho and Southern California, where homes were evacuated.

The fire on the outskirts of Ashland, a tourist destination best known as home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, ignited a string of homes one after the other, setting off explosions Aug. 24.

“It was just inferno — black smoke, RV, things blowing up, gas tanks, tires,” neighborhood resident Cindy Walker said. “Propane tanks, I don’t know. It sounded like bombs going off. Like tornadoes of black smoke coming out of garages and backyards.”

Three other houses were damaged and homes along four streets in the 1970s-era neighborhood were evacuated. The flames were finally controlled at around dusk and no injuries were reported. Officials were tallying the damage Wednesday and looking for the cause of the blaze, which burned less than 20 acres.

In southern Idaho, firefighters hoped calmer, cooler weather would help them gain ground on a wildfire that scorched more than 510 square miles.

The lightning-sparked fire was fueled by strong winds August 21 and 22, blackening more than 327,000 acres and becoming the nation’s largest actively battled wildfire since it started August 21. So far, crews have contained 10 percent of the fire burning across a desolate, flat landscape of sagebrush and cheatgrass.

In the mountain wilderness northwest of Los Angeles, dozens of rural homes were in danger for a time on August 24 as fire roared through 1,300 acres — or about two square miles.

Firefighters worked in 100-degree heat in rugged terrain as airtankers, including a DC-10 jumbo jet, painted ridges with orange swaths of retardant to try to corral the flames’ advance.

Evacuation orders in place for some 200 homes over several hours were lifted August 24 in the evening as rising humidity levels slowed the fire’s spread.

Elsewhere in California, a lightning-sparked blaze burning in Yosemite National Park since Aug. 9 blackened a total of 160 acres in the Lake Vernon area north of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The National Park Service said crews were managing the fire for ecological benefits.

Firefighters had mostly contained a blaze east of Mount Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County by Wednesday morning. The fire — covering 375 acres, or a little more than half a square mile — initially threatened six homes and 20 outbuildings, but no evacuations were ordered.

In Ashland, officials haven’t determined the fire’s cause and were unsure whether it was two fires or one that jumped Interstate 5 on the edge of the town of about 21,000 people.

Firefighters were busy earlier battling a six-acre grass fire across the freeway that destroyed two shacks, a trailer and an old barn when they got the call that flames were running up a grassy hill and igniting a line of homes, city Fire Marshal and Division Chief Margueritte Hickman said.

Firefighters and engines from two counties rushed to the neighborhood and started dousing homes, said Dennis Keife, chief of Lake Creek Rural Fire Department.

“It was just surround and drown,” he said. Two helicopters also responded and dropped water on the blaze.

Cindy Walker said many people recently stopped watering their lawns and landscaping due to drought conditions and the high price of city water. That may have contributed to the dry conditions that fueled the fire, she said.

Hickman added some of the burned homes had shake roofs, which ignite easily.

“We are in extreme fire danger,” she said, noting some of the landscaping close to homes could have contributed to them catching fire. “The reason we have restrictions are fires like this.”

By dark, a line of burned homes stretched along the freeway side of the street, some gutted and some burned to the ground, flames still burning the interiors. Cars sped by on the freeway behind them.

“It looks like a war zone has gone through here,” said District Fire Marshal Don Hickman, Margueritte Hickman’s husband.

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