Firefighters struggle to contain blazes as Soda Fire becomes largest in US

Wildfire Soda Idaho 16 August 2015

Firefighters across the northern Rocky mountains and the Pacific northwest are trying to contain flames that have been fed by drought. Photograph: Joshua Bessex/AP

Idaho fire burns 265,000 acres of land as winds help stoke wildfires sweeping across the Pacific northwest and elsewhere on Saturday

(SOURCE)  Winds helped stoke wildfires sweeping across the northern Rocky mountains, the Pacific northwest and elsewhere on Saturday, posing new problems for firefighters trying to contain flames that have been fed by drought.

One blaze, the Soda Fire near Nampa in south-west Idaho, had burned 265,000 acres to become the largest such blaze in the nation.

The weather was expected to worsen fires in some areas over the weekend, as the federal government said it would exhaust its firefighting budget next month.

The giant Soda Fire, on the Idaho-Oregon border, scorched grassland ranchers need to feed cattle and primary habitat for sage grouse, a bird being considered for federal protection. The Owyhee County sheriff’s office recommended residents evacuate several areas on the southern edge of the fire, and some roads were closed to recreational visitors. Locals were allowed in.

Elsewhere, mandatory evacuations were put in place on Friday for areas west of the Idaho city limits of Kamiah, because of a 20-square-mile fire, a TV station reported. KREM-TV in Boise said residents of the city and surrounding areas had been told they should be packed and ready to evacuate at any time.

Those areas included Harrisburg East, Caribel, Tom Taha, Adams Grade, Kamiah proper, East Kamiah, Woodland Grade, Frasure Grade, Ridgewood and Fort Misery.

Dozens of smaller fires burned forested areas of the state, mainly caused by lightning storms. In central Idaho, a 600-acre fire 13 miles north of Crouch in timber is the largest of three fires started in that area when lightning moved through earlier this week.

In Oregon, two large fires burned through buildings and forced evacuations as strong winds picked up, sending guests of a resort fleeing.

A fire on the Warm Springs Indian reservation in rural central Oregon exploded to more than 50 square miles on Friday, forcing evacuations of a rural subdivision and a resort that had 400 guests booked on Thursday night. The fire was expected to keep growing as strong winds push it through dry grassland. Earlier this week, sparks from a passing vehicle started the flames that have destroyed three structures, including a mobile home.

In eastern Oregon, a 34-square-mile, lightning-sparked fire burned 20 to 25 structures south of Canyon City and forced evacuations of residents in the area, while others were warned to be ready to leave quickly, KTVZ-TV in Bend reported.

The deputy state fire marshal said the structures were destroyed along Canyon Creek, located along Highway 395 south of the endangered town of Canyon City.

Also in eastern Oregon, a lightning-caused fire south of Baker City moved west towards Black Mountain and several summer homes. People in that area and those along a creek to the south were ordered to evacuate. The 20-square-mile fire burned an unknown number of structures on Thursday.
In Washington state, firefighters faced extreme heat and high winds as they battled large blazes and numerous smaller fires. Officials feared lightning storms could make the situation worse.

Hundreds of people were evacuating from the central Washington city of Chelan as lightning-sparked wildfires advanced. Flames and smoke were visible from downtown. Elsewhere, an uncontained blaze near Cougar Creek had burned 28 square miles near the Yakima Indian reservation. The state requested help from the national guard to fight that fire.

Also, a wildfire in a rugged area near the Canadian border chased hundreds of people from their homes and burned 10 to 12 structures, and a blaze northeast of Colville scorched almost five square miles and forced evacuations at campgrounds in the area.

Hot, dry weather also helped ignite dozens of new wildfires across the northern Rockies, where lightning and strong winds were expected make things worse, officials said.

The weather helped the largest Montana fire, in Glacier National Park, spread from just a few acres last Sunday to more than 23 square miles by Friday. It was uncontained in a remote area of the park, where it had forced some trail closures and was threatening two cabins, fire officials said.

A lightning-sparked fire in the Helena National Forest northeast of Lincoln had grown to two square miles since Monday. Its rapid growth led to the evacuation of a dozen nearby cabins, most of which are second homes.
In California, wildfires burned more than three square miles of land and two cabins. One fire erupted shortly after 1pm on Friday in the Angeles National Forest, northeast of Los Angeles. Gusty winds quickly drove the flames through 800 acres of brushy ridges near Glendora. Two campgrounds containing at least 40 people have been evacuated. Hundreds of firefighters were battling the flames in 100F heat.

Another fire erupted Friday afternoon in Simi Valley, just northwest of Los Angeles. It destroyed 150 acres of land and plowed through hills next to subdivisions containing hundreds of homes.

In Northern California, firefighters made more gains on Friday against a wildfire 100 miles north of San Francisco that forced mountain-town dwellers to evacuate for the second time in days. Two fires have charred dry Lower Lake, the most recent burning 38 square miles of thick brush and oak trees in Lake and Napa counties. It is more than halfway contained.

An earlier, larger fire in the same area was finally fully contained on Friday more than two weeks after it broke out. The blaze destroyed 43 homes.

The US Forest Service is spending about $100m a week fighting wildfires and will exhaust its firefighting budget next week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Friday.

The agency will have to tap fire-prevention programmes and other budgets, said Vilsack, whose department includes the Forest Service. Firefighting consumes 52% of the service’s budget and could reach 67% in 10 years, he said.

Vilsack wants Congress to use a separate federal disaster fund to pay for the worst 2% of wildfires, which eat up a big part of the Forest Service firefighting budget.

The House passed a bill last month to let the Forest Service use disaster funds when it drains its fire budget. Vilsack said that did not go far enough, because firefighting would continue to grow as share of the total budget under the current system.