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HAILEY, Idaho — A wildfire stoked by strong winds made a push to the north today and forced more people from their homes outside the posh central Idaho ski town of Ketchum, bringing the number of residences evacuated by the blaze to more than 2,300.
Despite the adverse conditions and extreme fire behavior, some progress was made on the Beaver Creek Fire’s south end, where crews conducted mop-up along the borders of blackened foothills west of the Hailey.
Lightning ignited the blaze Aug. 7. Fire officials estimated it grew to 144 square miles Friday night, fed by dry timber and underbrush. But they expect a more accurate size assessment after a plane with infrared cameras flies over the burn late today.
The fire is 6 percent contained.
More than 700 firefighters have been deployed to the mountains west of this affluent region, where celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenneger, Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis own pricey getaways. Five more hotshot crews arrived today, and more are expected to arrive this weekend to continue focusing on protecting homes in a sparsely populated county that boasts more than $8 billion in taxable property.
“It was a good day from the standpoint that we had no injuries, no lives lost, and no homes and property burned,” fire spokeswoman Lucie 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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Elsewhere, in northern Utah, about 10 homes were destroyed when a wildfire raced through the community of Willow Springs late Friday. As of midday today, the Patch Springs Fire had burned more than 50 square miles. It was 20 percent contained.
The Beaver Creek Fire is the nation’s top-priority wildfire, in part because it’s burning so close to homes and subdivisions. Early today, the firefight was hampered by thick smoke that engulfed Hailey, a town with 7,900 inhabitants 14 miles south of Ketchum, home of the Sun Valley Ski Resort.
Smoke stretching across the tight Big Wood River Valley also grounded the air attack on the blaze, putting more pressure on fire crews building fire lines on the ground. But by midday, the smoke cleared enough to scramble helicopters that targeted fires burning in the mountains and foothills that shoulder Hailey and north to Ketchum.
Fire managers also turned to a huge DC-10 tanker to resume retardant drops all across a fire that is burning hotter and faster than the Castle Rock Fire that threatened these towns in 2007.
“This fire is consuming everything,” fire spokeswoman Madonna Lengerich said. “The fire is so hot, it’s just cremating even the biggest trees.”
Ketchum, with a population of 2,700, and Sun Valley, with 1,400 people, were under “pre-evacuation orders,” with authorities telling residents to be ready to leave if necessary. Many in those towns heeded the advice as the exodus heading south on U.S. Highway 75 continued to slow traffic through the valley.
Ketchum’s tony retail and dining districts, normally buzzing this time of year with tourists and summer residents, resembled a ghost town. Dozens of retail shops, bars, outdoor cafes and restaurants on the town’s main street closed their doors today. Even The Casino, the city’s oldest bar, closed its doors to the surprise of residents. The Casino was established in 1936.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Dale Byington, general manager and 23-year veteran of The Sawtooth Club. The business was one of a handful of restaurants open on or near Main Street, but it closed early today because of a lack of business.
“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.
Fire officials are hoping the weather cooperates Sunday, when temperatures are expected to cool.