Hundreds of fresh firefighters have swarmed to central Idaho, where the stubborn Beaver Creek fire near ski and recreational mecca Sun Valley had swollen to more than 100,000 acres Sunday and was threatening the area due to high winds.
About 300 firefighters from across the country joined about 900 currently fighting the stubborn, 10-day old blaze, which continues to threaten one of the West's most popular recreation areas. About 2,250 residences near Hailey and Ketchum have been evacuated. Ketchum and Sun Valley remain under pre-evacuation warning as Forest Service crews, coupled with local fire departments and private crews hired by insurers and homeowners, battle both the main blaze, spot fires and protect homes from being consumed.
The efforts come as firefighters grapple with nearly 40 large fires in nine states, including two other pesky Idaho fires; the Pony Complex fire about 12 miles south of Mountain Home - which has torched nearly 150,000 acres but is 95% contained - and the Elk Complex fire in the Boise National Forest, which has consumed about 126,000 acres about 12 miles southwest of Pine but is 55% contained.
The Beaver Creek Fire has destroyed only two structures have been destroyed since Thursday. But it remains a threat along a 20-mile stretch of Idaho Highway 75, the two-lane road that's the state's main north-south artery from the Nevada border to southwest Montana. The lightning-caused fire grew from about 92,000 acres Saturday to nearly 101,000 acres, or an area about 160 square miles, by Sunday afternoon.
Forest Service spokeswoman Ludi Bond says the blaze is about 9% contained. Higher humidity and lower winds Saturday night and early Sunday helped slow the fire's growth along its southern end, where crews were mopping up blackened foothills west of Hailey.
"We're doing whatever we can to slow it down, dropping retardant, building containment lines, taking care of weak spots and destroying whatever vegetation that could ignite and feed fire,'' Bond said.
Seven helicopters are assigned to the fire. Both of the nation's massive DC-10 retardant bombers have also been used, but one experienced an engine malfunction after a drop Thursday and remains unavailable.
Still, firefighters were bracing for more trouble Sunday ahead of a forecast for higher winds which could fan the main blaze and ignite more spot fires in dry tinder canyons and gulches along the Big Wood River Valley.
At St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, a 25-bed hospital 2 miles south of Ketchum, patients were evacuated to a Twin Falls care facility and only the emergency room was open. Meanwhile, bulldozers were digging fire-prevention trenches and two helicopters were dropping fire retardant 200 feet from the building, said spokeswoman Tanya Keim.
Ketchum, the main town adjacent to Sun Valley, remained a ghost town Sunday, with scores of businesses closed and tourists and many of its 2,700 residents fleeing. The Ketchum-Sun Valley area is a second-home paradise for Hollywood A-listers, including Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis.
Dozens of retail shops, bars, outdoor cafes and restaurants on the town's main street are closed. Even The Casino, the city's oldest bar, was shuttered.
"I've never seen it like this," said Dale Byington, general manager and 23-year veteran of The Sawtooth Club.
"The only reason I opened was to give people here a place to go and get some food and drink, but that's not going to happen," Byington said.
Blaine County spokeswoman Bronwyn Nickel said August is the area's most popular month for tourists. Ketchum will be particularly hard-hit by the losses, she said.
Some residents, who evacuated days ago, are antsy to return home. But the county has issued warnings that homeowners are not to return until it's safe. National Guard troops arrived Sunday to man checkpoints at evacuated neighborhoods and help relieve local law enforcement officers.
Luckily, only a handful of firefighters have been injured, mostly heat-related.
"It was a good day from the standpoint that we had no injuries, no lives lost, and no homes and property burned," Bond said. "Firefighters have been going house-to-house to decrease the risk. We're simply not going to leave homes unprotected."
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