Highest level of fire danger in West declared | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Highest level of fire danger in West declared

MONUMENT, Ore. (AP) – Wildfires raging across the West forced federal officials to declare the highest level of fire danger on Wednesday. No one was more aware of the threat than the 150 residents of Monument as they waited to learn whether they will have to flee.

”The smoke is so thick you can’t see two blocks,” said Bill Kennedy, who has lived in this remote ranching area since 1988.

A 6,000-acre wildfire, burning as close as three miles away, flanked this high desert town. Air National Guard helicopters carrying big buckets passed overhead, on their way to dump water onto the flames.

About 500 firefighters are battling the blaze, helped by four choppers and dozens of fire trucks.

Fire crews have turned the grounds of Monument High School into a staging area. Dozens of tents were set up, resting places for weary firefighters.

So far, the fire is not a direct threat to the town itself, said Tim Birr, spokesman for the fire command center located at the school.

But firefighters worried about 10 to 15 homes on a ridge north of town, closer to the fire.

”We do have a series of serious fires that are posing a threat to homes outside of Monument. But at this point we don’t believe there is a serious threat to Monument itself,” said Birr.

Seven homes outside of town were evacuated Tuesday night.

Fire crews worried about the weather, with more thunderstorms forecast overnight and temperatures that could exceed 100 on Thursday.

Residents and firefighters had their fingers crossed.

”So far,” said Kennedy, ”we’re safe.”

The National Interagency Fire Center declared the fire danger across the West had reached Level Five. The center’s Web site says Level Five ”means several geographic areas are managing major wildland fires, are competing for resources, and have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources.” It is also the level when fire managers begin to look to the military for help.

It was the first Level Five declaration since last summer’s disastrous wildfire season, when 8.4 million acres burned across the country.

Fire managers estimated that nearly 400,000 acres were burning Wednesday across 10 states – Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

Three states accounted for the bulk of the fires – California, Oregon and Nevada.

Besides the Monument fire, one of the fires of greatest concern in Oregon was a blaze burning north of the California border – about 10 miles southwest of Ashland.

About 1,600 firefighters were battling the Quartz fire as it crept toward California. A heat inversion, which keeps smoke close to the ground, hindered efforts. Helicopters dumped water onto the head of the fire. About two miles of fire lines were holding, said Mark Moran, deputy state fire marshal.

The Oregon Department of Forestry expects the Quartz fire to reach 22,000 acres before burning out.

Nearly 130,000 acres were burning in California. About 110,000 acres were burning in Oregon, and another 110,000 in Nevada.

The largest single fire was in Nevada – a 82,000-acre grass and brush fire 17 miles north of Battle Mountain that is contained. Crews were turning their attention toward a nearby fire that was 25 percent contained at 11,000 acres.

Crews in Northern California battled four major fires, along with a smaller blaze that left one westbound lane of Interstate 80 closed on Wednesday after the freeway was shut down Tuesday.

The Observation fire was the largest blaze in California at 67,700 acres but had been 90 percent contained.

In Washington, state and federal land managers closed campgrounds, hiking trails and roads Wednesday after lightning-sparked wildfires burned at least six and possibly a dozen houses on Monday. No buildings had been damaged since Monday, but the largest blaze in the state, the Virginia Lake complex, had covered 27,000 acres of grass and sagebrush south of Okanogan.

In Oregon, crews from as far away as Indiana and North Carolina joined crews already on the lines.

”As the fire situation in the Northwest heats up, resources are harder to come by,” said John Jackson, incident commander at the Crane Complex fire near La Pine in central Oregon. ”We’re very happy to get these crews.”

Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the state Conflagration Act to ensure all available resources were available for fires threatening Monument and Ukiah, another remote high desert town. The governor had already called in the National Guard to assist crews statewide.

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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