PINE • Working against fickle wind patterns and low humidity, fire crews continue to battle the Elk Fire Complex now consuming more than 117,000 acres of the Boise National Forest.
Crowning across dry treetops and sprawling along hillsides, the Elk Fire had consumed at least 72 structures as of Wednesday.
Fifty-three structures were lost in the Fall Creek area, but it is still unknown how many of those were homes.
The Elk Fire, which sparked Aug. 8, is one of three Idaho wildfires ranked as the nation’s top priority fires. Combined, the cost of the three largest fires had reached $6.5 million on Wednesday, with the Elk costing the most at $2.7 million.
Highly trained and experienced fire managers are overseeing the Elk Fire, the 143,900-acre Pony Fire Complex burning near Mountain Home and the 44,173-acre Beaver Creek fire north of Fairfield.
With 630 personnel called in from all corners of the country, fire crews have been waiting for pockets in the weather patterns to let them intentionally light back burns along the Pine/Featherville Road.
“We like to do that at night when the temperatures are cool,” said Rick Case, division supervisor for the Elk Fire. “But it also depends on the wind. You don’t want to cause a spot fire, which is easy to do when you have a lot of embers.”
The Elmore County Sheriff’s Office has been assessing the area but has no platted area maps. So officials don’t know what to look for as they survey the fire area.
Evacuation orders have been in place since Sunday for Pine, and officials began knocking on Featherville residents’ doors Tuesday to get them out of the area.
Yet some are defying the evacuation order even as flames topped the ridges surrounding the Pine and Featherville vallies Wednesday.
Cyndie Christensen and her husband, Pat, went golfing Wednesday morning at the Featherville Elk Valley golf course.
“I won’t leave,” she said.
Christensen was told to evacuate last year when the 146,000-acre Trinity Ridge Fire burned north of Featherville. At the time, she took her pictures off the walls and packed them in the car but, like this year, chose to stay.
She said county officials told her Tuesday that she had 40 minutes to pack up and leave before the road leading to Featherville would be closed. Instead, she stood her ground. Now officials will not let her leave the closed area and return to Featherville.
Likewise, Pine residents refusing to evacuate are not allowed to leave and return until the order is lifted.
“There’s probably more ash this year,” Christensen said. “Sometimes you feel something on your arm, and you think it’s a bug but it’s a piece of ash. But really, this is nothing.”
One thing that is the same are the signs greeting and thanking firefighters. Created last year by residents, they reappeared in Pine and Featherville.
“Firefighters, Featherville Thanks You! God Bless,” read one poster. At the bottom, Featherville resident John Lewis scribbled “again.“
“I didn’t think I would have to break this out again so soon,” Lewis said.
Standing on the other side where the sign hung, Lewis’ neighbor, Lorie Winmills, wiped a tear from her eye.
“School was supposed to start for my granddaughter this week,” she said. “She keeps asking me when she can go to school. I don’t have an answer for her.“
Elk Fire managers have called in resources from all over the country and local crews from south-central Idaho.
Fire crews from Rupert, Paul, Oakley, Minidoka and Burley all have sent reserve engines and structure crews to the Elk Fire, said Randy Sutton, strike team leader with the West End Fire Protection District in Paul.
“A lot of us have a reserve engine or two we can send up,” he said. “We’ve been here since Sunday, and we’ll be here for a week or for however long they need us.“
Firefighter Mike Pearson, also with the West End district, said the days have been long and hot. As part of structure protection, he has laid hose, installed sprinklers and cleared brush from vulnerable homes.
“It’s been a lot of work but good so far,” he said.