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Hot Weather Fuels Fires in Oregon, Idaho

Updated 1:29 p.m. ET

A homeless man has been arrested and is facing charges related to a fire that destroyed 11 houses in southern Oregon.

Authorities said Wednesday that 40-year-old John Thiry was arrested at 3 a.m. under a freeway overpass and charged with 11 counts of reckless endangerment and 11 counts of reckless burning.

The wind-whipped fire burned through the college town of Ashland. Hot, dry weather — with temperatures near 100 degrees — also helped fires spread in Idaho and Southern California, where homes were evacuated.

The fire on the outskirts of Ashland, a tourist destination best known as home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, ignited a string of homes one after the other, setting off explosions Tuesday afternoon.

"It was just inferno — black smoke, RV, things blowing up, gas tanks, tires," neighborhood resident Cindy Walker said. "Propane tanks, I don't know. It sounded like bombs going off. Like tornadoes of black smoke coming out of garages and backyards."

Three other houses were damaged and homes along four streets in the 1970s-era neighborhood were evacuated. The flames were finally controlled at around dusk and no injuries were reported. Officials were tallying the damage Wednesday and looking for the cause of the blaze, which burned less than 20 acres.

In southern Idaho, firefighters hoped calmer, cooler weather would help them gain ground on a wildfire that scorched more than 510 square miles.

The lightning-sparked fire was fueled by strong winds Sunday and Monday, blackening more than 327,000 acres and becoming the nation's largest actively battled wildfire since it started Saturday. So far, crews have contained 10 percent of the fire burning across a desolate, flat landscape of sagebrush and cheatgrass.

Meanwhile, firefighters planned an aerial attack on a 1,300-acre wildfire that temporarily forced the evacuation of 200 homes in Kern County, about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

County fire Cmdr. Mark Geary says low temperatures and higher humidity allowed crews to close in on the two-square-mile fire overnight.

Temperatures in the area Wednesday are expected to reach triple digits, making it miserable for crews digging trenches and clearing vegetation.

About 200 homes were evacuated Tuesday but those orders were lifted later in the day.

Elsewhere in California, a lightning-sparked blaze burning in Yosemite National Park since Aug. 9 blackened a total of 160 acres in the Lake Vernon area north of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The National Park Service said crews were managing the fire for ecological benefits.

Firefighters had mostly contained a blaze east of Mount Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County by Wednesday morning. The fire — covering 375 acres, or a little more than half a square mile — initially threatened six homes and 20 outbuildings, but no evacuations were ordered.

In Ashland, officials haven't determined the fire's cause and were unsure whether it was two fires or one that jumped Interstate 5 on the edge of the town of about 21,000 people.

Firefighters were busy earlier Tuesday battling a six-acre grass fire across the freeway that destroyed two shacks, a trailer and an old barn when they got the call that flames were running up a grassy hill and igniting a line of homes, city Fire Marshal and Division Chief Margueritte Hickman said.

Firefighters and engines from two counties rushed to the neighborhood and started dousing homes, said Dennis Keife, chief of Lake Creek Rural Fire Department.

"It was just surround and drown," he said. Two helicopters also responded and dropped water on the blaze.

Cindy Walker said many people recently stopped watering their lawns and landscaping due to drought conditions and the high price of city water. That may have contributed to the dry conditions that fueled the fire, she said.

Hickman added some of the burned homes had shake roofs, which ignite easily.

"We are in extreme fire danger," she said, noting some of the landscaping close to homes could have contributed to them catching fire. "The reason we have restrictions are fires like this."

By dark, a line of burned homes stretched along the freeway side of the street, some gutted and some burned to the ground, flames still burning the interiors. Cars sped by on the freeway behind them.

"It looks like a war zone has gone through here," said District Fire Marshal Don Hickman, Margueritte Hickman's husband.

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