Fire season continues in West; evacuations ordered

By Shannon Dininny

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Blazes have scorched more than 8.1 million acres across the West so far in 2012, up from the 10-year average of 6.1 million, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Mild recent fire seasons combined with moderate winter weather contributed to a buildup of the kind of undergrowth that fuels forest fires, said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst for predictive services at the center. The warm dry summer exacerbated things.

"Finer fuels allow fires to burn more rapidly and have more active fire behavior," Sullens said, adding that the fuels buildup explains why fewer fires have burned more acres altogether.

Fire officials would like to have a wet fall, but Sullens said that's not in the weather forecast for the near future.

The West's wildfire season started in earnest in Colorado during an unusually warm and dry March. A wildfire charred 6 square miles in the foothills outside Denver, killing three people and destroying 23 homes. March usually is one of the snowiest months, but this year it was Denver's warmest and driest on record.

At higher elevations, the weather ate up snowpack weeks ahead of normal. Red-flag warnings were issued in many parts of Colorado on an almost routine basis throughout the month.

Meanwhile, other wildfires continue burning across the West:

— Southeast of Portland, Ore., people camping and hiking near a blaze spreading in the Deschutes National Forest near Sisters were evacuated as gusty winds whipped the fire through dead trees.

The fire area was estimated at about 3 square miles, or 2,000 acres, but KTVZ-TV reported a flight to get a precise picture was canceled by mechanical problems. Four vehicles at a trailhead were destroyed Sunday.

— In Washington state, other fires that apparently started over the weekend burned more than 11,000 acres of sagebrush and grass, and were threatening homes near Grand Coulee Dam in Douglas and Grant counties. Another fire burned 200 acres of sagebrush and grass near Odessa in Lincoln County.

As many as 80 fires along the east slopes of the Cascades were set by Saturday night lightning strikes, the Department of Natural Resources said. Most remained small. The state Emergency Operations Center was activated Sunday evening and dispatched four interagency fire management teams to help local firefighters and coordinate state assistance.

— In Northern California, improving conditions aided about 1,400 firefighters battling a blaze that is threatening about 300 homes outside of Ukiah.

— In Idaho, a blaze visible for miles forced closures in the Payette National Forest.

Associated Press writers Donna Gordon Blankinship and Doug Esser in Seattle, Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

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