Firefighters were making some progress as they battled a monster wildfire in central Idaho that threatened getaways owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and other celebrities, authorities said Monday.
The 104,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire is a "beast" looming on the edge of Sun Valley, a playground of the rich and famous, fire officials told NBC station KTVB of Boise on Monday. About 1,850 homes remained under a mandatory evacuation order after about 400 residents were allowed to return home Monday, the Blaine County Sheriff's Office said.
Those 400 homes — along with about 7,700 others — were on "pre-evacuation" status, a warning to owners to pack up and be ready to flee at a moment's notice.
Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security
Fourteen large fires were burning Monday across Idaho. Click the image for the full-size map.
The blaze was spreading across parched sagebrush, grasslands and pine forests, covering an area larger than the city of Denver. It remained only 9 percent contained 12 days after it was set off by lightning, the state-local-federal joint fire command reported Monday afternoon.
The agency assessed it at "extreme" risk of growth.
"Every fire has a personality, and this fire has an angry personality," Beth Lund, the incident commander with the U.S. Forest Service team managing the blaze, told Reuters.
Red-flag conditions, including higher temperatures and wind gusts up to 38 mph, hampered firefighters through the weekend. But winds died down Monday, allowing crews to reinforce a fire break running from the top of Bald Mountain — the resort's primary skiing hill — to try to wall off the blaze from the tourist town of Ketchum.
"There's better news coming," said Kevin Noth, lead meteorologist for The Weather Channel.
"It looks like more clouds and higher humidity for midweek," Noth said. "There might also be some thunderstorms, which could bring some rain — but the possibility of lightning, too."
The rain would be especially welcome, as an extended drought has left the area draped in dry vegetation — the perfect fuel, said Traci Weaver, a spokeswoman for the fire management team.
"It's been hot. It's been dry. The vegetation here is extremely dry," Weaver said. "It's a perfect firestorm."
At least 13 other large fires were burning Monday in Idaho, four of them in the same Sawtooth Wilderness area as the Beaver Creek Fire, the state Bureau of Homeland Security said.
The largest, dubbed Little Queens, had spread to about 7,000 acres northwest of the tiny town of Atlanta, where the Elmore County Sheriff's Office ordered a mandatory evacuation Monday.
Authorities put the tax value of property potentially threatened by the fires in the larger Wood River Valley at $8 billion.
In Ketchum, signs adorned many businesses Monday saying they were closed.
"It affects business negatively for sure," Baird Gourlay, president of PK's Ski and Sports, told KTVB. "All the business owners are depressed about it, because August is a huge month for everybody, from coffee shops to ski shops."
Elsewhere, the 131,000-acre Elk Complex Fire in Boise National Forest was being brought under control Monday, authorities said. Its western, southern and eastern perimeters have been contained, the joint fire command said, and the fire itself was 65 percent contained.
The West has already suffered a series of destructive wildfires in 2013. Colorado experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history in June, which killed two and destroyed about 500 structures. As that fire burned, 11 other fires plagued the state, and more threatened other parts of the Southwest.
The following month, 19 heavily trained Hotshot firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.
Even amid the destruction, 2013 is shaping up to be below average in terms of the number wildfires and their size.
According to the National Fire Information Center and the National Interagency Fire Center, 31,683 fires had burned 3.3 million acres this season through Sunday. That compares to a 10-year, year-to-date average of 52,700 fires and 5.4 million acres.
Jay Gray of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published August 19 2013, 11:58 AM