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Western Firefighters Worry About Lightning

Fire managers worried that lightning could spark more blazes in the West, while investigators tried to determine what caused a helicopter delivering water to firefighters in the Klamath National Forest to crash, killing the pilot.

The fires burning in 11 western states have scorched 1.5 million acres, reports CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes. Officials have the nation at its highest preparedness level, with foreign and national guard resources ready to move in.

"I don't know that there has been a time in recent history that our resources have been stretched this thin," said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.

The chopper went down Monday in "extremely rugged" mountains about 12 miles southeast of Happy Camp in Siskiyou County, said Duane Lyon, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The helicopter was carrying a large water container to refill hand-pump backpacks for firefighters on the ground. Some firefighters saw the helicopter crash and reported it to emergency dispatchers.

The pilot, who was not identified, was under contract with the Forest Service but was not a government employee, Lyon said. The pilot was the only person on board.

More than 1,100 fire crews were battling the cluster of about 30 lightning-sparked fires covering 14 square miles near the Oregon state line. The fires, which started July 10, had threatened up to 550 homes near the town of Happy Camp, but none has been destroyed. The blazes were more than 20 percent surrounded Monday.

Fire crews wrestled with dozens of huge wildfires across the West on Monday, primarily in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Fire managers were worried that dry lightning storms in some of those states could spark further blazes, though the systems were expected to bring rain Tuesday, the agency said.

"It's great to have rain, but there's always the possibility of a downdraft and erratic winds. There's a high concern over additional lightning strikes," said Ricardo Zuniga, a fire information officer in Utah, where a more than 33-square-mile blaze has forced the evacuation of several communities.

There already was enough wind to carry smoke 90 miles north to Salt Lake City, fire information officer Michelle Fidler said.

The fire started Thursday and remained about 15 percent contained, Fidler said.

The small towns of Oaker Hills, Indian Ridge, Elk Ridge, Indianola and Holiday Oaks were evacuated, officials said. A shelter was set up at a school in Mount Pleasant, Zuniga said.

In southwestern Utah, a fire in and around Zion National Park was 40 percent contained after burning 14 square miles.

No buildings had burned, but an evacuation order remained in place until Tuesday for about 800 homes, said Deanna Younger, a fire information officer. Most were unoccupied seasonal homes, and only about 50 people evacuated, she said.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect for the tiny town of Jarbidge, Nev., where a fire of more than 880 square miles on the Idaho-Nevada line was burning within a mile, fire information officer Bill Watt said. While roughly 90 percent of the fire was in Idaho, the most active part was in Nevada and was 15 percent contained, he said.

An evacuation order for Murphy Hot Springs in southwestern Idaho was lifted for residents only. A lot of grazing land burned, and cattle likely died in the blaze, fire information officer Pam Bierce said.

A wildfire in southern Idaho covered more than 880 square miles, growing by about 200 square miles in just 24 hours during the weekend. Fire officials said it threatened tracking and radar facilities at Mountain Home Air Force bombing and firing range, which is used by pilots training for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, firefighters had a good day Monday thanks to forecasted thunderstorms never materializing, reports .

"They actually stayed to the south and that was what really accounted for being able to get a handle on some of the areas," said fire information officer Mark Wilkeming, adding that crews still need to build nearly 300 miles of containment lines.

Meanwhile, thousands of homes remain threatened.

"In fact, we will be in that pattern until we can actually get lines around everything, Wilkeming told Kaufman.

In Montana, a nearly 14-square-mile fire burning on the edge of Lewis and Clark National Forest led to an evacuation order for 40 summer homes. Many were unoccupied, said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle.

Five firefighters died while protecting an uninhabited vacation home in last year's Esperanza wildfire. One federal investigation found the men were put in an "indefensible position," reports Hughes. A second found a Forest Service culture that accepts "notably higher risk" for structure protection.

All this has sparked a review of Forest Service guidelines, potentially forcing firefighters to take fewer risks when it comes to saving homes.

"They cannot walk away from structures that are burning," said Terry McHale of the California Firefighters Union. "These are people's homes."

McHale says the real problem is not reckless firefighting but risky home building. In California alone, more than 6 million homes sit in high fire zones.

The guideline review won't be completed until the peak of fire season this fall. Until then, fire officials will resort to reminding crews that no home is worth dying for, reports Hughes.