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1,300 homes evacuated as Idaho wildfire spreads

August 17, 2013|By Benjamin Mueller
  • Helicopters battle the 92,000 acre Beaver Creek Fire on Friday north of Hailey, Idaho. Some 1,300 homes were evacuated, and the Sun Valley resort community was under pre-evacuation orders.
Helicopters battle the 92,000 acre Beaver Creek Fire on Friday north of… (Ashley Smith / Associated…)

An erratic, fast-moving wildfire raged through sagebrush and pine trees and threatened the Idaho mountain resort community of Sun Valley on Saturday as residents of 1,300 homes in the area were ordered to leave.

Evacuation orders, which already included homes in drainages and foothills west of Hailey and north of Ketchum in central Idaho, were expected to spread Saturday to homes in the west Ketchum area, said Bronwyn Nickel, spokeswoman for Blaine County.

Nickel said one home and one smaller structure had already been destroyed, and others were “definitely at risk.”

The blaze burned across 92,754 acres Saturday, up dramatically from the 64,236 acres burning Friday, a spokeswoman for Beaver Creek Fire, Shawna Hartman, said.

Around 700 state and federal firefighters were working to contain a blaze that Hartman said was unusually intense and volatile. The fire, which Hartman described as shaped like “a giant Pac-Man with its mouth open,” posed a particular risk to an affluent resort region that has served as a retreat for Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

“Sun Valley is right in the middle of its open mouth,” Hartman said.

Another 1,000 firefighters were expected to report to the scene Saturday.

Wildfires generally subside overnight, Hartman said, but this one “picked up intensity and even made a run, which is very uncommon.” The overnight activity strengthened an already unpredictable blaze, which officials said had been jumping with little warning from ridge to ridge and burning in all directions with equal intensity.

Hartman attributed the fire’s strange behavior to wind gusts topping out at 30 mph, low humidity, dry ground fuels and the area’s curvy topography.

The fire’s proximity to homes has provoked a robust and coordinated response in a region familiar with big blazes.

Private insurance companies have sent in their own engine crews to bolster structural protection for homes that can cost millions of dollars, Nickel said.

In addition, Sun Valley Resort has turned on water cannons that are normally used for wintertime snowmaking in order to keep grass and trees moist. The Sun Valley area is under pre-evacuation orders.

Jack Sibbach, a resort spokesman, said the fire wasn’t yet threatening lodges on the mountain, but its path so far had left little indication of when it might.

“It’s acted not normal,” he said.

Sibbach himself evacuated his home south of Ketchum on Friday morning, a precautionary move he said was designed to take pressure off an area with few access points.

He said the wildfire had dropped dense smoke into Sun Valley each morning, obscuring the view of mountains only half a mile away.

Five hotshot fire crews were awakened at midnight Friday to fight the blaze, Hartman said. They joined heavy helicopters and huge air tankers trying to funnel the fire into an area burned during another blaze in 2007.

Winds Saturday were blowing out of the southwest, which threatened to push the fire closer to homes.


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