Winds Fan Fires Across Hot, Dry Western States

By: CBS News, Posted by Chelsey Moran
By: CBS News, Posted by Chelsey Moran
Fire

Fire thumbnail KAUZ MGN

(CBS/AP) CLE ELUM, Wash. - The extreme fire conditions across the West came to bear in a rural part of Washington state when three separate blazes were sparked in just 90 minutes.

Firefighters snuffed two quickly, but the third exploded across more than 40 square miles of grassland, timber and sagebrush on the east slope of the Cascades. It left authorities scrambling to evacuate hundreds of residents.

"Chaotic," Kittitas County Undersheriff Clayton Myers said. "It was one of those things you never felt like you were in control, because things kept changing with the wind."

Reporting from Cle Elum, a town about 75 miles east of Seattle, CBS News' Ben Tracy says the most dangerous fire stretches 17 miles long, at least 70 homes have been destroyed and authorities are rushing to contain the fire because it's expected to get hotter later this week. (Watch full report above)

"Everybody's house is gone," one resident told Tracy. "All my friends, my neighbors, you know, people I care about. We're all either gonna have to move or rebuild, probably shed some tears and start over."

Tracy reports that nationwide this year, 40,000 wildfires have burned 6 million acres in land - 1 million more than average. The fires are largely fueled by drought conditions.

Brad Rorem and his two sons saw the fire under a bridge construction site, where it started, just down the hill from their cabin near Cle Elum. They fled when it ran in their direction.

"It just shot up so fast," he said, adding later: "We feel really fortunate to have gotten off the mountain in time."

Hours later and several miles to the east, Miriam Greenman left her home with her 6-year-old son, Nathaniel, a handful of clothes and some of his favorite toys to comfort him. Their fish stayed behind.

"I feel bad about the fish, but I figured he was in water and he'd have to tough it out," she said.

By Tuesday evening, their homes had survived the blaze, but many neighbors weren't so lucky. About 70 homes and hundreds of outbuildings had burned, officials said.

No injuries have been reported, but fire danger is extreme due to wind, heat and dry conditions, incident commander Rex Reed said.

"We've had a long prolonged dry period — three weeks with no precipitation at all," he said.

Desperate neighbors tried to cut out containment lines with hand tools to help protect property threatened by the fast-moving fire, while others loaded up horse trailers to help evacuate livestock to the county fairgrounds.

Kittitas County Fire and Rescue Capt. Joe Seemiller said the wind has made it extremely difficult to turn back the flames.

"Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we're going to be fighting this awhile," he said.

The blaze in Washington state was one of several burning across the dry, windy West. About 12 fires were burning in Idaho, where a 20-year-old firefighter died as she worked near Orofino, the U.S. Forest Service said. Anne Veseth was struck by a falling tree, authorities said.

Over the weekend, a blaze along the Nevada-Oregon border forced one firefighter to crawl into an emergency fire shelter. She suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation, officials said. The fire has grown to about 675 square miles.

Across California, thousands of firefighters were contending with dry conditions, strong winds and triple-digit temperatures. In the southern part of the state, residents of dozens of homes in sparsely populated inland areas evacuated as wildfires thrived in the desert heat.

A blaze near the community of Aguanga in Riverside County had grown to about 4½ square miles just a few hours after breaking out. One person was airlifted to a hospital for treatment of serious burns, state fire officials said. No details on the person's identity or injuries were released.

Thirty-two homes were evacuated and at least one two-story house was destroyed. Animal control officials were helping homeowners remove livestock from the area, including a dozen alpacas from a farm.

Some 40 miles away in San Diego County, one of four lightning-sparked fires came dangerously close to rural ranch houses. The fires burned a total of about 9 square miles and some were expected to merge overnight, said state fire spokeswoman Roxanne Provaznik.

But in Northern California, crews made progress against a wildfire that threatened 500 homes in the Spring Valley and Long Valley communities, allowing hundreds of residents to return home.


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