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Planet Ark World Environment News Wildfire destroys 60 homes, burns 20,000 acres in Washington state

Date: 15-Aug-12
Country: USA
Author: Jonathan Kaminsky

Firefighters battled wildfires across the U.S. West on Tuesday, including a massive out-of-control blaze that has destroyed 60 homes and burned more than 20,000 acres between two national forests in Washington state.

Another 400 homes were evacuated in the rolling hills between the northwest Washington towns of Cle Elum and Ellensburg, at the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, prompting Governor Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency in two counties.

The massive Taylor Bridge Fire was among more than a dozen wildfires burning across the West, which is wilting under a heat wave that has sent temperatures into the triple digits. Together, the fires have burned some 500,000 acres across Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.

Across the nation, wildfires have consumed roughly 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) this year, above the 10-year average of 4.9 million acres (2 million hectares), according to figures from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Authorities suspect the Washington state fire began on Monday afternoon at a construction site east of Cle Elum, about 75 milessoutheast of Seattle.

"We don't know the cause, we just know the origin," said Rick Scriven, a spokesman for a state emergency response team.

With strong winds expected to pick up Tuesday afternoon and no rain in the area for three weeks, more damage is likely, said Bryan Flint, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.

The fire is likely to spread to the north, where it could reach the Wenatchee National Forest within 10 miles, and to the east, which is mostly farmland, Flint said. South of the fire is the Snoqualmie National Forest.

"All Washingtonians stand with those who have lost their homes and property in the Taylor Bridge Fire," Gregoire said in a written statement. "The destruction overnight is a stark reminder of how quickly and unexpectedly wildfire can move."

FIRES BURN IN CALIFORNIA

In Northern California, more than 1,100 firefighters spent a third day attacking a pair of wildfires that have destroyed two homes in Lake County's Spring Valley area and charred some 7,000 acres.

Daniel Berlant, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman, said firefighters had contained only 30 percent of the two blazes burning dry brush in remote Lake and Colusa counties. They did not expect full containment for a week.

But firefighters made enough progress attacking one of the fires that authorities lifted an evacuation order for 480 homes in the Spring Valley area on Monday night, he said.

Berlant said the flames had moved east into Colusa County and continued to threaten the area around Wilbur Hot Springs, a 147-year-old resort that offers clothing-optional bathing in mineral water.

Owner Richard Miller said he and 15 employees had to flee the property, which was closed on Sunday for 12 days of maintenance.

"It is in jeopardy," Miller said. "There's fire surrounding it."

But he was confident the California Department of Forestry would protect the retreat, which includes a stucco hotel built in 1910 and nine homes.

"Wilbur is a charmed and magical place and it has all the luck," Miller said.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while working the blaze in triple-digit temperatures.

'CATASTROPHE'

Suzann Thompson, who works the front desk at Clear Lake Cottages and Marina, said the fires decimated business throughout the area. Clear Lake, the biggest lake in California, is a popular tourist attraction.

"It's really a catastrophe," she said.

Elsewhere in California, lightning sparked four fires in eastern San Diego County, where 2,352 acres of remote wildland had burned. No homes were threatened as of Tuesday afternoon.

In Idaho, fire crews struggled to contain a dozen blazes raging across more than 200,000 acres of steep, forested terrain. A 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter was killed in Idaho on Sunday when a tree fell on her, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said.

Robyn Broyles, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said several blazes in Idaho's mountains would not likely be extinguished "until the snow flies."

In Oregon, a wildfire sparked by lightning on August 6 had consumed 44,000 acres of pine and fir forests in the south-central part of the state by Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of 32 seasonal homes and ranches.

Residents of another 30 homes were asked to prepare to leave in advance of flames driven by strong winds that on Monday night swept across the border into Northern California, federal fire information officer Renee Snyder said. That fire was 25 percent contained.

A lightning-caused blaze that began on August 5 had raced across 432,000 acres of dry grasslands and sagebrush straddling the Oregon-Nevada border by Tuesday and was 48 percent contained, fire information officer Alan Hoffmeister said.

(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen, Laura Zuckerman, Teresa Carson and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)

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