'It just shot up so fast'; Fires blaze across West

August 15, 2012 - 1:43 AM
Western Wildfire

Flames surround a house Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, on a hillside above Bettas Road near Cle Elum, Wash. Wildland firefighters on-site advised that the house survived the fire. The fast-moving wildfire has burned 60 homes across nearly 40 square miles of central Washington grassland, timber and sagebrush. No injuries have been reported but more than 400 people have been forced to flee. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

CLE ELUM, Wash. (AP) — As firefighters across the West responded to blazes, efforts in Washington state were made especially difficult Tuesday as winds pushed fast-moving flames east of a small town, destroying dozens of houses.

The fire in central Washington has burned about 70 homes, scorching roughly 40 square miles of grassland, timber and sagebrush, authorities said.

At least 900 people were evacuated, and no injuries have been reported. Authorities said that because of wind, heat and dry conditions, the fire danger is extreme. State Department of Natural Resources Fire Incident Commander Rex Reed said late Tuesday that the fire was 10 percent contained.

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

The blaze started at a construction site Monday near Cle Elum, a town about 75 miles east of Seattle, and spread rapidly.

Brad Rorem and his two sons were preparing gear to float down the Yakima River and fish when they spotted the blaze under the bridge from their home.

"It sort of erupted, and the wind was blowing hard in our faces. It just shot up so fast," he said, adding later, "We feel really fortunate to have gotten off the mountain in time."

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.

In Idaho, authorities said a firefighter was killed by a falling tree Sunday. Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old who was in her second season as a firefighter, died as she worked a fire near Orofino, the U.S. Forest Service said.

In Utah, a lightning-sparked fire consumed about 34 square miles, threatened a herd of wild horses and shut down the historic Pony Express Road in the state's western desert.

Along the Nevada-Oregon state line, a vast wildfire grew to about 675 square miles. Over the weekend, the blaze prompted evacuations and forced one firefighter to crawl into an emergency fire shelter. She suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation, officials said.

Across California, thousands of firefighters also were contending with dry conditions, strong winds and triple-digit temperatures. The blazes left some areas with smoke lingering in the air.

In Northern California, hundreds of evacuees were allowed to return home as crews made progress against a wildfire that threatened 500 homes in the Spring Valley and Long Valley communities.

In Southern California, a cluster of four lightning-sparked wildfires in northeastern San Diego County stretched to nearly 4 square miles, state fire officials said.

Officials added the fires threatened electrical distribution lines that serve the communities of Borrego Springs, Warner Springs and Ranchita, some 50 miles northeast of downtown San Diego.

Fires across California have also affected some national parks with road and camp closures, including Lassen Volcanic National Park and Joshua Tree National Park.

Also, smaller blazes were reported in New Mexico and Wyoming.

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Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco; John Miller in Boise, Idaho; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore.; Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City; Doug Esser in Seattle, and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.