Nightly News   |  August 15, 2013

Drought fuels western wildfires

A drought plus high temperatures, dry fuels and winds helped feed wildfires burning in the west.  NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports.

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>>> back in this country, in the american west , fires are exploding out of control tonight in several states, a total of 39 large fires across 11 states right now. many of them fueled by historic drought conditions . veteran firefighters are facing what they call a recipe for disaster, and one of those fires is on the move tonight in utah where more than a dozen homes have been destroyed. nbc's miguel almaguer joins us from outside the fire lines in wanship, utah , near park city . miguel , good evening.

>> reporter: lester, good evening. we're being kept a safe distance from this fire because it's so explosive and dangerous. this area is a tinder box . listen to this brush beneath my feet t. is so dry, it is so explosive, and it is so ripe and ready to burn. in fact, much of this region is just a tinderbox ready to go up in flames. with flames shooting 100 feet into the air, utah 's so-called rockport five fire has swallowed at least 14 homes and now threatens 250 more.

>> i was absolutely horrified that our home was going to be completely gone.

>> reporter: for hundreds forced to flee the flames there was little time to evacuate.

>> it was just a ball of fire.

>> reporter: this lightning sparked fire is racing at speeds up to 100 feet per minute, feeding on endless acres of dry brush . veteran firefighters call this one of the fastest, most explosive fires they've ever seen.

>> we've seen extreme fire spread and extreme fire behavior with rapid changes in direction.

>> reporter: utah isn't alone. in the parched hills of idaho, crews are battling the nation's most challenging fire, 81 structures gone, 112,000 acres destroyed.

>> we've been really busy. our crews have been pushed real hard.

>> reporter: drought conditions are fueling fires everywhere, with rainfall below average for a second year, the last seven months out west are the driest on record. the region in extreme drought.

>> you get a hot spring and certainly a hot early summer like we had, and you're going to get an expanding drought. that's exactly what's ahappened out west.

>> reporter: with 3.1 million acres charred so far this year, this isn't a record fire season yet, but it is historic. in arizona, the deadliest fire in state history, 19 killed in yarnell. while in colorado, the most destructive, nearly 500 homes leveled in a single fire. tonight, back in utah , growing danger. the rockport five fire is threatening to make another run, the latest in a fire season far from over. so far tonight, this fire has charred some 2,000 acres, wind speeds tonight could reach 35 miles per hour. that's the biggest threat. the good news, this blaze is 25% contained. the next few hours, lester, will be critical.

>> miguel , thank you.