Western Wildfires Stretch Resources to the Max

BOISE, Idaho, July 19, 2007 (ENS) - The West is ablaze with major fires which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources, prompting the National Interagency Fire Center today to declare its highest alert level.

Level 5 preparedness is declared only when large fires occur in many areas at once, requiring a heavy commitment of crews, aircraft, and equipment, along with a forecast for continued hot, dry, windy conditions.

Initial fire attack was heavy across the nation with 412 new fires yesterday. Since Monday, more than 1,000 new fires have been reported.

Idaho's 48,000 acre Tongue Complex fire is in steep and inaccessible terrain with poor access. (Photo courtesy South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Manangemt)
Currently, Idaho and Nevada have 43 large fires with more than 511,000 acres burned.

With hundreds of thousands of acres burning in Nevada, Governor Jim Gibbons declared a state of emergency, mobilizing resources to battle the blazes and facilitating financial assistance after they are out.

Twenty miles south of Winnemucca, Nevada, the pilot of a single-engine tanker plane fighting the Barrel Springs Fire crashed Tuesday evening. Firefighters pulled the pilot to safety just before the crash site was consumed by flames.

The pilot was transported from the scene by ambulance to Humboldt General Hospital in Winnemucca. Jamie Thompson, public information officer with the Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca field office, said the pilot suffered only cuts and abrasions and was covered with aviation fuel but was treated and released late Tuesday.

Officials said the plane was under contract from Minuteman Aerial Applications of Montana. A crash investigation is underway.

Calling the Hawken Fire in the foothills west of Reno extremely dangerous, Governor Gibbons has called a halt to construction and recreation along the Sierra Front in west Washoe County until it is out. Full containment is forecast for July 24.

The Hawken Fire is burning near Reno, Nevada. (Photo by Larry Miller)
With 530 personnel on the job, the Hawken fire has consumed 2,495 acres of grass, sagebrush, and mountain mahogany, and is moving into larger timber. The cause is under investigation.

The Reno 9-1-1 emergency line has been so swamped with requests for fire information that Police Chief Michael Poehlman has asked people to stop calling to let overloaded operators handle other emergencies.

Instead, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office has activated the Regional Emergency Operations call center at 775-337-5800, and people are asked to log onto: www.sierrafront.net.

Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley has activated search and rescue volunteers and sheriff’s deputies to go door-to-door telling residents in the remote areas of Arrowcreek and Lone Tree to start preparing for possible evacuations.

Fire officials have closed the 30,000 acre wilderness area on Mount Rose. The highest peak in the Carson Mountains, visible from Reno, serves as an important watershed for residents of western Nevada.

Lack of resources to fight a complex of seven fires 20 miles north of Carlin, Nevada, has resulted in today's spread of the lightning-sparked blaze to 24,000 acres of grass and sage. Only 58 firefighters are doing battle, while unpredictable wind and weather are forecast.

Fire broke out Wednesday night at the edge of the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory, INL, a 890 square mile nuclear energy research site in southeastern Idaho.

The Materials and Fuels Complex, where most of the radioactive materials are located, was closed today. Lab officials said, "No INL facilities are threatened by the fire."

By late afternoon, the INL fire had burned more than 4,800 acres and was 50 percent contained, but it is still being pushed by winds gusting between 16 and 25 miles per hour.

This fire is located four miles northeast of Atomic City, the site of a decommissioned research reactor that on December 20, 1951 became the world's first nuclear power plant to generate electricity.

Law enforcement officers have reopened U.S. Highway 20 to traffic, but said the highway may be intermittently closed throughout the evening and night, depending on the progression of the fire line.

Also in Idaho, the incident Commander for the East Zone Complex of six fires has recommended a voluntary evacuation of the community of Secesh Meadows with the fire just two miles away, a "high" potential for growth and zero percent containment.

The East Zone Complex is burning in the Payette National Forest. (Photo by Karen Semple courtesy Inciweb)
There are 282 firefighters on the scene of the blaze which has burned 11,400 acres of the Payette National Forest about 25 miles northeast of McCall. Forty to 50 structures and about 100 part-time summer residents are in the fire's path.

Idaho's Elk Mountain Fire 23 miles northwest of Jackpot in the BLM's Twin Falls District has burned over 25,000 acres and is just 10 percent contained. Extreme fire behavior was reported and the blaze is threatening power lines and residences.

There are only four major fires in California today, and two are largely contained, while a third was rained on yesterday.

Firefighters are battling the Zaca Fire in Santa Barbara County, which has charred 28,346 acres and is just 35 percent contained. This fast-moving fire is burning in chaparral 15 miles northeast of Buellton. Residences remain threatened and evacuations are in effect.

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire Tuesday proclaimed a state of emergency for all 39 Washington counties due to concern for the availability of resources to deal with a severe and escalating fire season. The proclamation allows for mobilization of the Washington National Guard and the Washington State Guard.

"I am taking this step as a precaution," said Governor Gregoire, describing the situation as "extreme."

Rain brought relief to firefighters on several large fires in Oregon and Montana today, while rain dampened northern Nevada Monday, dousing numerous lightning strikes. Cooler weather with higher humidity is forecast for the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.