Wildfires blaze across West, burning homes

A homeowner tries to hold back flames from his house with a shovel Tuesday near Cle Elum, Wash. 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. Enlarge photo

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

A homeowner tries to hold back flames from his house with a shovel Tuesday near Cle Elum, Wash. 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.

CLE ELUM, Wash. – A fast-moving wildfire in central Washington has burned at least 60 homes and forced hundreds of people to flee – one of several blazes scorching the West on Tuesday, threatening communities, sending up thick plumes of smoke and disrupting activity in national parks.

Fire commanders estimate the Washington blaze has burned at least 24,000 acres – about 38 square miles – since it started Monday afternoon east of the small town of Cle Elum.

No injuries have been reported, but more than 400 people have been evacuated, said Department of Natural Resources Fire Incident Commander Rex Reed. The fire crept within six miles of Ellensburg, about 75 miles east of Seattle.

The blaze, which began at a bridge construction site, is not contained. And authorities worried about wind and heat, saying the fire danger was extreme.

“We’ve had a long prolonged dry period – three weeks with no precipitation at all,” Reed said.

Joe Seemiller, a captain in Kittitas County Fire and Rescue, said gusty winds were hampering Washington firefighters.

“Unless Mother Nature helps us out here, we’re going to be fighting this awhile,” Seemiller said.

In Idaho, 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. Her older brother also is a wild-land firefighter in Idaho, where 12 blazes are burning.

A crew in central Washington state barely outran flames Monday at the wind-driven fire in Kittitas County. The firefighters managed to drive to safety as they got ahead of the Taylor Bridge fire, said Richelle Risdon, a county fire spokeswoman.

Near Cle Elum, Wash., some property at a chimpanzee sanctuary burned. The seven chimps at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest are fine, but they seemed bewildered by the smoke and the changes in their routine brought by the blaze that burned within a couple hundred feet of their building, a spokeswoman 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.

In Northern California, crews made progress against an aggressive blaze in Lake County that grew to more than 9 square miles and destroyed three buildings. Officials lifted evacuation orders for the residents of nearly 500 homes late Monday, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“The fire is still actively burning, but burning in a remote area,” Berlant said. “It’s burning in brush that’s tinder dry and hasn’t seen a fire in decades.”

A separate wildfire to the north was threatening about 600 homes, prompting some evacuation orders in the Seneca and Rush Creek communities in Plumas National Forest. The fire burned about 55 square miles, officials said.

Fires across California have affected some national parks, including Lassen Volcanic National Park and Joshua Tree National Park.

A handful of other fires in hot and dry Southern California were sparked by lightning. Four in northeastern San Diego County covered more than 2,300 acres, threatening to leave several communities without power.

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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.