Idaho wildfires top U.S. firefighting priority list

BOISE, Idaho — The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise upped the wildfire preparedness level Tuesday to the highest level for the first time in five years and listed two central Idaho wildfires as the country’s top priorities.

About 1,250 homes remain evacuated in the resort area of Ketchum and Sun Valley due to the 160-square-mile Beaver Creek Fire.

About 50 miles west, the tiny mountain town of Atlanta is under pre-evacuation orders due to the 12-square-mile Little Queens Fire burning through timber about four miles away. Only about 65 firefighters have made it to the remote area so far.

About 1,750 personnel are assigned to the Beaver Creek Fire that through Monday has cost $11.6 million. The fire is only 9 percent contained, but fire managers say favorable weather combined with retardant drops and more firefighters arriving the last few days have them continuing to feel optimistic.

“After we were raised in priority, we started getting a lot more crews in, and now we have the resources to change our strategy to a much more direct one,” said fire spokesman Rudy Evenson.

Blaine County officials on Tuesday lifted a mandatory evacuation for residents from about 600 homes. In addition, residents in Sun Valley and the east side of Ketchum have been removed from pre-evacuation status. But another 6,100 homes remain on the pre-evacuation status.

Evenson described the shape of the Beaver Creek Fire as similar to the video game Pac-Man, with Ketchum between the jaws. He said firefighting efforts Tuesday focused on “working on Pac-Man’s lower teeth” about five miles south of Ketchum, and using the same tactic north of Ketchum, or what Evenson called “Pac-Man’s top teeth.” Another spot being attacked is to the west of Hailey, he said.

“It’s going to be a lot of crews on the ground and a lot of hard work with saws, axes and shovels, supported again by aircraft,” he said. “There’s plenty of work still to be done. There’s a lot of fire line that needs to be built.”

Blaine County spokeswoman Bronwyn Nickel said residents have sensed a change.

“I think the tide has kind of turned,” she said Tuesday. “Yesterday afternoon I would say tensions were high. But I think today people are being a little more optimistic. They can kind of see the end of the road now. This happened at the height of our tourist season so there’s some trepidation there.”

The lightning-caused fire that started Aug. 7 has destroyed one home and some outbuildings. Only a few minor injuries to firefighters have been reported.

Fire officials said the Little Queens Fire, reported on Saturday, has been active with single torching and group torching of trees. Fire spokesman Jerry Rohnert said a mandatory evacuation for Atlanta was changed late Monday to pre-evacuation.

“They’re focusing a lot of the suppression activities on the south flank of the fire due to the proximity of Atlanta,” Rohnert said.

The last time the National Interagency Fire Center upped the preparedness to level 5 was July 2008. Fire managers said a large number of wildfires and an expectation of continued severe fire conditions will require a major commitment of resources.

Center spokeswoman Tina Boehle said the designation also means the military can be asked to take part and that U.S. officials can call on international partners for firefighting help. She said those partners include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Also at the Center on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch held a news conference with fire officials.

The senators emphasized the need for collaborative efforts among ranchers, timber companies, environmentalists and other groups in finding ways to reduce fire danger in the West through preventive measures. The senators also said changes needed to be made at the national level on forest management, and they would work to make those changes happen.

“In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden said.

The senators also said they were grateful to the firefighters.

“We give our thanks for the incredible efforts they are undertaking on our behalf,” Crapo said.

Risch said timber harvest could help reduce fire danger.

“You have to deal with fuel loads,” Risch said. “Unfortunately, it turns to fuel when it’s past the time when it should be harvested.”

Also on Tuesday, fire officials reported that one of the nation’s two DC-10 jet retardant bombers returned to service. It has been inactive following an engine malfunction following a drop on Thursday on the Beaver Creek Fire. It returned safely to Pocatello in southeastern Idaho, where the engine was replaced.

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