published Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Washington residents go home near fire, still ’on edge’

Richard "Bo" Bolton, a timber feller from Burney, Calif., cuts down trees burned in the Reading Fire along Highway 89 in Lassen National Park on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. The National Park Service is felling trees that burned in the fire to prepare the road for possible reopening this weekend.
Richard "Bo" Bolton, a timber feller from Burney, Calif., cuts down trees burned in the Reading Fire along Highway 89 in Lassen National Park on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. The National Park Service is felling trees that burned in the fire to prepare the road for possible reopening this weekend.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SEATTLE — Thunderstorms and lightning threatened fire officials’ plans to contain a large blaze in central Washington state as hundreds of Washington and California residents returned home to find out whether their homes were spared.

In Idaho, some people were told to evacuate as encroaching blazes neared Idaho towns. The towns of Pine and Featherville remained in the path of a 130-square-mile wildfire that has been burning for two weeks. Authorities had been asking residents to prepare to leave.

“It’s a very active, very dangerous fire,” said fire information officer Steve Till. Crews “were prepared for it but civilians are probably much better not being here.”

The fire burning through timber grew 15 square miles overnight and within 24 hours is predicted to reach the community of Featherville, where fire crews have set up to protect about 366 residential buildings. High temperatures combined with low humidity and difficult terrain are making it harder for the 1,082 firefighters assigned to the blaze.

Fire spokeswoman Lisa Machnik said Saturday that three firefighters suffered ankle and knee injuries because of the rough terrain.

Authorities also warned residents to leave ahead of a nearing wildfire in Custer County. The sheriff’s office told some residents that if they did not evacuate by Friday evening, officials could not guarantee their safety.

To the west, many residents in Washington state were returning to the south and east sides of a 35-square mile blaze near the town of Cle Elum in the Cascade Range, about 75 miles east of Seattle. That fire burned out of control for much of the week, destroying 70 residential properties and 210 other structures on the east side of the Cascades.

“People are finding a little bit of everything. Some homes were damaged, some homes were destroyed and some homes weren’t even touched,” Fred Slyfield, emergency management specialist for Kittitas County, Wash., said Saturday morning.

About 900 firefighters and eight helicopters were still building a line around the fire, which started Monday at a bridge construction project and exploded through dry grass, brush and trees. More than 400 people fled their homes. About 30 people are in local shelters, Slyfield said.

Fire danger remained high in the area, with hot, dry weather and a chance for storms and lightning expected Saturday evening.

“We’re kind of on edge about that,” said Mick Mueller, a spokesman at the fire command center.

Fire officials are on alert and crews are ready to respond quickly should lightning and winds trigger new fires in the area late Saturday, fire spokesman Matt Comisky said Saturday morning.

Crews in California made progress on some of the nearly dozen wildfires burning across that state. About 400 residents were allowed to return home in a rural area of San Diego County in the southern part of the state.

Firefighters also have been making progress against a series of wildfires burning in Northern California, but officials say more than 900 lightning strikes late Friday and early Saturday have started more fires.

State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant says lightning sparked more than a dozen new fires late Friday and early Saturday, though most of the new fires are small.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to battle two huge wildfires on national parklands in Northern California.The nearly 1,200 firefighters struggling to surround the Chips fire in Plumas National Forest have the fire 34 percent contained.

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