Friday, August 03, 2007


Western Wildfires Update: Hundreds near Calif. fire ordered out

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. - A huge wildfire grew significantly in a national forest Friday night, raining ash on communities miles away and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate their rural homes and campgrounds.

The month-old fire in northern Santa Barbara County has burned an estimated 38,000 acres — or 60 square miles — and was 70 percent contained. However, fire officials said the blaze had grown during the day.

"We got additional wind on it today and the fire started burning more actively midmorning," said Kathy Good, Los Padres National Forest spokeswoman. "Now it's headed south-southeast."

Told to evacuate were 300 people in 160 homes, 300 people from five campgrounds, 75 children and 12 staff members from Los Prietos Boys Camp, and an unknown number from an RV camp, said William Boyer, a county spokesman.

No homes were immediately threatened, Boyer said, but evacuation was ordered because "the way the fire is moving, we want to give them enough time to get out."

The fire was burning through heavy vegetation, which is "generating a lot of smoke and ash that's extending over to Santa Barbara and Montecito, basically to the coast," Good said.

The area is crowded with thousands of visitors for Santa Barbara's annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the area and declared a state of emergency in the county to free up state resources for fighting the fire.

The blaze was started July 4 by sparks from equipment repairing a water pipe. To date, the fire has cost about $42.8 million to fight.

Firefighters battled blazes across the West and another in New Jersey.

In southwestern Montana, 25 houses threatened by a wind-whipped fire were ordered evacuated about 20 miles from Philipsburg, said Karen Semple, a fire information officer. The houses are east of a 2,400-acre fire, she said.

Other residents north of Helena who fled a 49-square-mile fire Thursday night were allowed to return to their homes. But the Lewis and Clark County sheriff told them to be prepared to leave again.

Crews had contained 33 percent of the fire burning in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness since July 21. Fire managers hoped progress achieved during the week would not be reversed as forecasts called for 35 mph gusts, said Cheryl Larsen, a fire information officer.

"We've had a window of opportunity the last couple of days to make some good advances, continuing construction of the fire line and fortifying it," Larsen said.

In Washington state, at least 400 firefighters were being deployed to battle the nearly 500-acre blaze sparked by a helicopter crash on Thursday, fire information officer Scott Crawford said. Four people died in crash about 60 miles east-southeast of Seattle on the east slope of the Cascade Range.

"We have one way in and one way out, which is a big safety challenge," he said. "There's going to be a super focus on safety in fighting this fire."

The fire was not immediately threatening any buildings. An unoccupied cabin sits about a mile away.

In Idaho, fire crews contained a blaze that had scorched more than 1,000 square miles and forced the evacuation of two small towns near the Nevada line. No homes were destroyed, fire officials said.

Hot, dry conditions persisted as crews fought 13 other large fires that had burned 600 square miles across the state, including a fast-moving fire in northern Idaho. It grew to 100 acres — less than a fifth of a square mile — by Friday evening but forced the evacuation of several homes, officials said.

Another fire torched 3,000 acres — about 4.7 square miles — in a remote corner of the Wharton State Forest in New Jersey. Fire officials could not estimate when the blaze might be contained, but no homes have been threatened.