FAIRFIELD • Hundreds of Idahoans still can’t return to their homes as the nation’s top priority wildfires ravage communities, devour grazing land and ruin recreation sites.
The destruction prompted Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to declare Idaho a disaster area. The order allows state agencies to send more resources to help suppress the flames.
The largest wildfires include the 143,900-acre Pony Fire Complex near Mountain Home, the 111,900-acre Elk Fire Complex stretching from Pine to Prairie, and the 38,700-acre Beaver Creek Fire by Ketchum.
53 structures in the Fall Creek area have been destroyed in the Elk Fire, but the Elmore County has not released what types of buildings were lost. In addition to those structures, three boat docks in the area were destroyed.
The Elmore County Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation Tuesday of Featherville and reiterated that its evacuation order is still in effect for people along the Pine/Featherville Road from Idaho 20 to the Johnson Creek Bridge south of Featherville.
Due to the fires’ extreme conditions and growth potential, the nation’s most experienced and trained management teams have been ushered in to oversee management of the battles until the wildfires are completely suppressed.
Combined, the state’s three largest wildfires had burned more than 274,000 acres as of Tuesday. Air quality warnings were issued in most of the southern half of the state. In Twin Falls and Ketchum, health officials ranked the area as moderate with certain parts of day considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Nearly 700 Idaho Power customers were without power as of Tuesday due to the fire. The utility company did not know when power would be restored.
Firefighters intentionally lit a back burn near the Pine Senior Center to protect the town’s homes Tuesday. Yet the fire continues to move northeast toward Featherville.
Weather conditions will continue to be the top factor in how far the Elk Fire advances. The fire is 10 percent contained.
The Pony Fire is pushing to the south and east, threatening the Idaho 20 corridor, but firefighters did have the flames 40 percent contained.
Over by the Beaver Creek Fire, three homes were lost and 100 head of cattle were killed in the neighboring McCan Fire on Saturday.
The McCan and Beaver Creek Fires were sparked by lightning Aug. 7 and have quickly expanded in Camas and Blaine counties.
Smoke from all three major wildfires has dissipated over the Camas County Prairie and Fairfield landscape, dulling visibility and sinking into clothes and lungs.
The U.S. Forest Service closed the Fairfield Ranger District in the Sawtooth National Forest; it is not known when or if it will reopen this summer.
“This is far from over,” said Camas County Sheriff Dave Sanders. “The next 48 hours will be the main indicator of where everything is going to move.“
Bill Corlett lost his home late Thursday evening. Bill had seen the fire glowing over nearby ridges, but because he was in the bottom of a valley, he couldn’t see the flames.
For 15 years, Bill had lived in the secluded and remote cabin. He relied on solar panels and wind energy for electricity and used the nearby creek for running water.
Bill’s place is now a blackened landscape where the fire rushed through with no care for what it consumed.
“It wasn’t until the wind started blowing from the east was when I started getting worried,” he said. “In my 15 years of living there, I had only seen the wind blow from the east three times.“
Bill and his wife gathered their dogs into a vehicle before the flames started trickling into his valley.
As he left, Bill saw cattle scattering. Then the fire hit a large gas tank and exploded. The force of the blast threw Bill’s white pickup across the road and into a stream.
“I came back the next day and saw cows dead in the road and live cows below,” he said. “It was sad. I think they took a wrong turn.“
Almost 100 cows died in the flames. On Tuesday, officials were digging a large pit with the help of a backhoe to bury the carcasses not 10 feet from where they died.
Blackened cows with bellies split open lay like children’s forgotten toys on the hillside. The backhoe’s driver wore a gas mask to shield himself from the stomach-turning smell.
“There is nothing G-rated about this,” Sanders said.