Idaho residents flee encroaching blazes

Lizzie Morris, 4, waits for her grandmother, Lorie Winmill, to load their belongings into a vehicle as they prepare to evacuate from their home in Featherville, Idaho on Aug. 15, 2012. AP Photo/Jessie L. Bonner

(AP) FEATHERVILLE, Idaho - Lorie Winmill grew teary as she loaded her vehicle and prepared her 4-year-old granddaughter to stay with relatives as a wildfire burned closer to this small town in central Idaho.

"This is the only home Lizzie has ever known," said Winmill.

Hundreds of people in two Idaho towns packed their belongings and left Wednesday ahead of a massive blaze expected to hit the area later this week.

They joined scores of weary residents across several dry and hot western states that are dealing with one of the worst fire seasons in memory.

Not only are more wildfires flaring up in the West this year than last, but the nation's fires have gotten bigger, said Jennifer Smith, of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

As of Wednesday, nearly 43,000 wildfires had been reported in the U.S. this season, burning a total of 6.4 million acres, or 10,000 square miles. The 10-year average for this period is 52,535 fires but covering only 5 million acres, she said.

The massive Idaho wildfire has burned more than 100 square miles in the past two weeks. It was bearing down on Pine and Featherville, vacation towns in the mountains 105 miles northeast of Boise.

"It's not a question of if, but when," Boise National Forest spokesman Dave Olson said of the fire reaching Featherville's outskirts.

A steady stream of traffic moved away from Pine and Featherville, a town with a single main street, saloon, motel, cafe and a handful of other shops. The area has 450 homes, with about half inhabited year-round and the others serving as summer and weekend retreats.

Smoke has loomed over Featherville for several days, a signal for many that evacuation orders may soon be coming.

Western wildfires spiral out of control

Crews faced nine big fires in Idaho, including one in the Salmon-Challis National Forest that stranded 250 rafters floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Authorities closed a backcountry access road due to falling boulders and debris caused by the blaze. Some rafters were stuck for two days before authorities began shuttling them out Wednesday.

Other wildfires across the West include:

— In Washington, hundreds of firefighters used bulldozers and hand tools to build containment lines and aircraft dropped water and fire retardant on a stubborn blaze east of the Cascades. Dozens of homes across roughly 35 square miles have been destroyed.

More evacuations were ordered late Wednesday on the north side of the blaze, adding to the hundreds of residents who have already fled homes. The fire started Monday and quickly spread in rural areas east of Cle Elum, about 75 miles east of Seattle.

— In California, crews were preparing for storms and strong winds at a wildfire in a remote, rugged area in Plumas National Forest. More than 900 homes were threatened by the 66-square-mile blaze in Northern California.

Nearly a dozen major blazes were burning across California, with some 8,000 firefighters assigned to get them under control, said state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. They made progress at a blaze in Northern California's Lake County, allowing hundreds of evacuees in the Spring Valley community to return home.

A brutal heat wave in Southern California, however, fueled wildfires that tore through more than 24 square miles of brush. Lightning sparked a group of five fires that together burned more than 14½ square miles in a rural part of San Diego County, said state fire Capt. Mike Mohler. About 400 residents were ordered to leave in the communities of Ranchita and Santa Fe.

— In Oregon, four major blazes have been burning across the state since a series of lightning storms last week. One fire that straddles the state's border with California threatened a local landmark, the Crowder Flat Guard Station. Another blaze that burned 675 square miles of sagebrush along the Oregon-Nevada border finally stopped its spread this week since it was sparked by lightning Aug. 5.

— In addition to the fire along that the state's northern border, 10 other large wildfires were burning in northern Nevada.

— In Arizona, rainfall and cooler temperatures helped crews at two small wildfires east of Phoenix. Both were in such remote, rugged terrain that crews were forced to attack the fire near Superior by air only.

— In Wyoming, firefighters used a helicopter to rescue five California men from a remote mountain fishing camp after a wildfire threatened their only way out. That blaze has burned 1,300 acres in the Shoshone National Forest, but no homes are in the extremely rugged area. Elsewhere in the state, firefighters had a 6,500-acre fire in Converse County nearly contained.

— About 15 residents west of Polson, Mont., were forced to evacuate after winds up to 30 mph helped double the size of a 7-square-mile fire. No homes were threatened, though some outbuildings have burned.

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