Dry Northwest Burns as Fire Season in West Extends

By Beacon Staff

WENATCHEE, Wash. – Homeowners in an upscale neighborhood of central Washington gathered in a cul-de-sac and watched helplessly as a wall of flames inched down a distant hill, a stark reminder that the 2012 fire season is far from over across the arid West.

Firefighters east of the state’s Cascade Range scrambled to contain dozens of fires sparked by a weekend lightning storm. They were aided by diminishing winds late Monday.

But across the West, high winds and temperatures exacerbated already dangerous fire conditions, prompting the National Weather Service to issue red-flag warnings for wide swaths of eastern Washington and Oregon, Idaho, Montana and all of Wyoming.

In Wyoming, authorities evacuated 500 people from homes and cabins as a wildfire about 10 miles southeast of Casper quickly grew.

The Sheep Herder Hill Fire, which started Sunday, burned at least six structures and more than 15 square miles of pine forest and sagebrush. State Forester Bill Crapser wasn’t sure if the structures were homes and that more buildings may have been lost.

In Washington, rain that fell in the Seattle area after a 48-day dry stretch didn’t make it over the Cascade Mountains that divide the state’s western and eastern halves.

In Wenatchee, about 140 miles east of Seattle, the self-appointed “Apple Capital of the World” had many residents worried about their homes. About 180 homes were evacuated Sunday. Some residents were allowed to return, while others were told to leave Monday, police Sgt. John Kruse said.

Crews arrived from across the state to help fight several fires in the region. Shannon Grosdidier and her four daughters delivered oatmeal cookies to the firefighters on her street.

“The wind has died down, which is good,” she said. “But I’ve got the photo albums in the car and our overnight bags packed.”

Only a shed has been lost near Wenatchee, and no injuries have been reported at what appeared to be the most-threatening of the wildfires sparked Saturday by lightning in the state.

In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead activated two state Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, each with 600-gallon buckets, to dump water on a fire there. A total of 12 Wyoming Army and Air National Guard troops were activated, including a liaison to coordinate possible aid to a Jackson-area fire in northwest Wyoming.

About 1,000 residents were told to prepare to leave as the Little Horsethief Fire burned more than 4 square miles in a mountainous area less than two miles south of Jackson. But officials said it appeared the town of about 9,500 residents would be able to get through Monday night without any evacuations.

In western Montana, residents of about 350 homes threatened by a wildfire west of Hamilton were told to leave Monday. The Sawtooth Fire grew to 4 square miles and was threatening houses, two businesses and scores of sheds, barns and other buildings spread over a 10-mile area, fire information officer Gregg DeNitto said.

Blazes have scorched more than 8.1 million acres across the West so far in 2012, up from the 10-year average of 6.1 million, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Mild fire seasons combined with moderate winter weather recently contributed to a buildup of undergrowth that fuels fires, said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst for predictive services at the center. The dry summer exacerbated things.

“Finer fuels allow fires to burn more rapidly and have more active fire behavior,” Sullens said, adding that the fuels buildup explains why fewer fires have burned more acres altogether.

Fire officials would like to have a wet fall, but Sullens said that’s not in the forecast so far.

The West’s wildfire season started early and in earnest in Colorado, which had an unusually warm and dry March. A fire charred 6 square miles in the foothills outside Denver, killing three people and destroying 23 homes. March usually is one of the snowiest months, but this year it was Denver’s warmest and driest on record.

At higher elevations, the weather ate up snowpack weeks ahead of normal. Red-flag warnings were issued in parts of Colorado on an almost routine basis throughout the month.

Other blazes across the West include:

— In central Oregon, winds fanned a wildfire near the town of Sisters but also pushed flames away from populated areas. Officials estimated the acreage at nearly 7 square miles. About 300 firefighters were at the Pole Creek Fire.

— In Washington, fires that apparently started over the weekend burned more than 23 square miles of sagebrush and grass, and threatened homes near Grand Coulee Dam in Douglas and Grant counties. Another fire 17 miles southwest of Creston in Lincoln County burned across 28 square miles.

As many as 80 fires along the east slopes of the Cascades were set by lightning Saturday, the state Department of Natural Resources said. Most remained small.

— In Northern California, weather aided about 1,600 firefighters battling a blaze that is threatening about 300 homes outside of Ukiah.

— In Idaho, a blaze visible for miles forced closures in the Payette National Forest.

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