PINE, Idaho (AP) — Firefighting planes dropped retardant and ground crews trailed water hoses Monday to keep a fast-moving and unpredictable wildfire from scorching homes in a remote Idaho hamlet, where residents have been evacuated ahead of a big blaze for a second straight year.
Thunder and lightning storms have sparked dozens of wildfires across the West in recent days, sending fire crews scrambling, threatening communities and impairing air quality in some areas.
Near the central Idaho community of Pine, the lightning-sparked Elk Complex Fire had burned 141 square miles of sage brush, grass and pine trees in rugged, mountainous terrain.
A few miles to the south, another big fire, the Pony Complex, had burned nearly 225 square miles of ground amid escalating winds and temperatures. Though it’s now about a third contained, downed power lines complicated efforts by firefighters to corral the flames.
Pine and neighboring Featherville were under mandatory evacuation orders Monday, a day after Elmore County sheriff’s deputies went from house to house, knocking on doors to alert residents to clear out of the area.
But some people, including Pine resident Butch Glinesky, opted to stay and watch over their property in this rustic vacation area some 50 miles east of Boise.
“As much as they say we need to be out, I think we can always offer something,” Glinesky said, watching as a crew from Colorado set up structure protection in his yard. “It’s just, you know the area.”
Residents’ insistence on staying wasn’t generally welcomed by federal officials, who expressed concerns about added traffic on the roads.
“People have a false sense of security,” Boise National Forest District Ranger Stephaney Church told The Associated Press. “We can’t do our job when they refuse to leave and we’re diverting resources” to get them out of their houses.
Last year, the Trinity Ridge Fire burned several miles away, blackening nearly 228 miles and forcing hundreds to temporarily evacuate Featherville.
This year, fire officials say the Elk Complex has moved much faster, dipping in and out of ravines and torching ponderosa pine trees on ridge tops visible as bright orange smudges through the smoke cloaking the valley floor.
“Everything is behaving like it has no moisture at all,” Church said.
The fire has destroyed several homes, fire officials said, though exactly how many had not yet been determined Monday.
Jeff Day, a game warden with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said he toured a small settlement on the north side of a reservoir popular among boaters and anglers, called Fall Creek. There, he said, he’d seen several cabins burned to the ground, though the Fall Creek Resort was still intact.
Day said he believed all the people from Fall Creek had left by the time the flames arrived.
National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Madonna Lengerich said the road below the charred hillside was too dangerous to allow reporters; an assessment team was in the area, counting lost buildings, she said.
In north-central Washington state, a lightning-sparked wildfire grew to more than 9 square miles of dry grass and shrubs. Fire managers said the Milepost 10 Fire was 70 percent contained, and evacuated residents of 78 homes were allowed to return home late Monday. The fire was burning about eight miles south of Wenatchee, overlooking the Columbia River.
Meanwhile, mudslides were posing problems just south of the fire, where thunderstorms have dropped heavy rain at the site of another recent blaze. Three homes may have been pushed off their foundations, Chelan County, Wash. emergency officials said.
Mudslides also closed Highway 20 east of Rainy Pass on Washington’s scenic North Cascades Highway.
In Utah, firefighters worked to contain several lightning-caused fires, including one near the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley that was threatening more than 20 structures and estimated at 10.5 square miles.
Most of Monday’s fire growth was contained atop the Stansbury Mountains, away from homes, but crews feared overnight winds could push the blaze toward threatened properties, fire information officer Joanna Wilson said.
Idaho’s fires, sparked by lightning last week, have led to the closure of more than 1,200 square miles of Boise National Forest land.
Firefighters helped residents near the community of Pine clear brush around their homes and filled large plastic “pumpkins,” or pools, with thousands of gallons of water to spray from sprinklers to protect property.
For residents, the fire activity this season seems more imposing than the flames of the Trinity Ridge Fire that moved so close to town a year ago.
“It burned differently,” said Kylie Rivera, who works in the kitchen at the Pine Resort and was taking pictures of a helicopter ferrying water between the reservoir and the flames.
“Last year, there were clouds, the fire didn’t move so quickly,” Rivera added. “This year, it’s so clear and hot, they say the fire is creating its own weather. It’s hard to control.”
Along with Rivera, other employees who had opted to stay had their vehicles parked nearby, just in case they needed to make a break quickly, said Pine Resort owner Allen Kiester.
“All the help’s got their trucks ready,” Kiester said. “Their precious things are in their vehicles.”
Out front, two fire engines stood ready to help if needed.
Kiester pointed to the tin roof of the resort, noting it won’t burn, but conceded that having a wildfire in the neighborhood for the second straight year is bothersome.
“We don’t need no more of this,” Kiester said.