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Firefighters step up battle in Idaho blaze menacing resort towns

Source: Reuters - Sun, 18 Aug 2013 07:04 PM
Author: Reuters
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By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Firefighters readied for a massive ground and air attack on Sunday against a wildfire in central Idaho that has forced the evacuation of some 2,250 homes and threatens the posh Sun Valley ski resort.

The fire raging across parched sagebrush, grasslands and pine forests near high-end developments in Sun Valley has consumed 101,000 acres (41,000 hectares) and destroyed one home and seven other buildings since a lightning strike sparked the blaze on Aug. 7.

More than 1,000 firefighters were preparing on Sunday for what fire officials called "a heavy air show" in a drive to gain the upper hand over a blaze fed by low humidity, high temperatures and gusting winds.

Air tankers equipped with fire retardant and helicopters hauling water were to lead the fight on Sunday to protect the 5,128 residences, 1,399 commercial properties and 3,729 outbuildings threatened by the fire, said federal fire information officer Jim Chu.

For the first time since the so-called Beaver Creek fire ignited, weather conditions on Sunday favored firefighting efforts. A rise in humidity levels overnight paired with calmer winds made Sunday a crucial day in the push to knock down a fire that has advanced on affluent neighborhoods around the tourist town of Hailey and resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley.

The land and property in the area that is being threatened by the fire is worth some $8 billion, fire officials said Sunday.

The 11-day battle against the advancing flames has strained the tourism economy of the region at the height of the summer recreation season, and the improving weather conditions were cause for cautious celebration in Hailey, a city of 8,000.

"Saturday was really, really scary, but things seem to be looking up a bit today," said Carrie Morgridge, owner of Hailey Coffee Company.

Flames raced down a mountain on the west side of Hailey on Saturday, prompting a 3 a.m. evacuation of 200 homes. Morgridge opened the coffee shop during the pre-dawn hours to aid the displaced.

"In the good, in the bad, we will do what it takes to stay a community, to be an extended family, because that's really what we are," she said.

The resort towns nestled in a narrow mountain valley are known for hiking, biking, fishing and skiing, and for hosting the second homes of celebrities like former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and actor Tom Hanks.

The Beaver Creek fire is one of dozens of blazes raging in Western states amid a U.S. fire season that has brought substantial property losses and seen the deaths of dozens of firefighters.

Elsewhere in Idaho, the 1,000 summertime residents of the resort communities of Pine and Featherville were expected to be allowed back into their homes early Sunday evening after a days-long evacuation prompted by a 130,000-acre (53,000-hectare) wildfire that broke out on Aug. 8.

The blaze east of Boise destroyed 38 homes and 43 other buildings and killed dozens of animals, including elk and deer. Wildlife officials euthanized a black bear that was badly burned when flames engulfed the tree it had climbed to escape the fire. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Karen Brooks and Eric Beech)

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