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Homeowners, tourists flee Sun Valley resort region as massive wildfire approaches

Hundreds of homes are being destroyed and many more are still under the threat of wildfires in Utah and in Idaho. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

More than one thousand residences near the Idaho mountain resort community of Sun Valley were under mandatory evacuation orders Friday as a wind-driven wildfire ripped through sage and pine trees, threatening lives and homes.

At least 1,600 homes were included in the evacuation order, according to according to NBC affiliate KTVB.

Some 700 state and federal firefighters were deployed to battle the monstrous blaze as it moved east toward the affluent region, which is a second home to celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks, according to The Associated Press. 

Private insurers have dispatched their own crews to provide structural protection for homes valued in the tens of millions of dollars, said Bronwyn Nickel, a spokeswoman for Blaine County, which is east of the capital of Boise, according to the AP.

“There are private engines that insurance companies have sent in,” Nickel said. “They’re on site, they’re working with our local firefighters and law enforcement.”

A massive DC-10 tanker, capable of hauling 12,000 gallons of flame retardant, was among the fleet of aircraft making drops on the Beaver Creek Fire, which has burned more than 64,000, according to fire officials.

Meanwhile, flying in separate aircraft, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell took an aerial tour of the giant fire, according to the AP.

Residents in the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley, where the temperature Friday afternoon hit 93 degrees, were advised to ready their belongings in case they need to leave abruptly.

Fire managers “are just adding an extra layer of caution to the plan that they started last night,” said Rudy Evenson, a spokesman for the federal team spearheading the fight against the fire, according to the AP. “We have a forecast for 30-mph winds at the ridge tops.”

Southbound traffic on U.S. Highway 75 was clogged Friday, as many homeowners and vacationers attempted to flee the smoky blaze.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Flames blaze down a ridge as the Beaver Creek wildfire rages outside Hailey, Idaho, on Friday, Aug. 16.

“They just don’t know which way the fire is going to go, so they’ve got to get everybody ready,” Hailey resident Jane McCann told the AP. “The smoke is unbearable. Today in Hailey, you couldn’t see the mountains from Main Street.”

Fire officials said strong winds, low humidity and tinder-dry vegetation gave rise to conditions that stirred up the huge blaze, according to KTVB. It was ignited by lightning Aug. 7, according to officials.

The National Weather Service warned early Friday that gusting winds and “very low” humidity in parts of Idaho - already dealing with eight other large fires - meant there was a risk of that more wildfires could break out.

It said fires could turn into “wind driven events with explosive fire growth on new and ongoing fires.” Containment of the fire had dropped to 6 percent by Friday night.

Warnings that new wildfires could break out were also in place for parts of Utah, Montana and Hawaii.

To the west of the Beaver Creek Fire, the Elk Complex Fire in the southern Idaho mountains has burned more than 125,000 acres and destroyed 38 homes and 43 other structures.

Evacuation orders have cleared out the town of Pine, a popular vacation area where most of the destroyed homes were located. The fire was listed as 50 percent contained, but the Forest Service said in a notice Thursday said full containment was not expected until Oct. 1.

Fire officials also continued to struggle with the Rockport 5 wildfire near Park City, Utah, which has destroyed eight homes and spans nearly 2,000 acres.

In all, 34 major fires are burning across 11 states, fueled largely by severe drought conditions.

The Associated Press and Andrew Rafferty of NBC News contributed to this report.