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'Firefighters have been getting their butts kicked': Erratic Idaho wildfire threatens thousands of homes as it spreads

The fast moving blaze is endangering 1,600 homes. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

A break in gusty winds and the arrival of more firefighters has helped slow the growth of a massive blaze in Idaho that has spread to more than 100,000 acres and threatened nearly 10,000 homes near the towns of Hailey and Ketchum, fire officials said Sunday.

Sparked by lightning on Aug. 7, the Beaver Creek Fire is just 9 percent contained.

About 1,000 people have fled their homes in an affluent section of Ketchum, a ski town where celebrities like actors Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis have getaway homes. More than 1,000 firefighters backed by air tankers and helicopters have worked to keep the flames from spreading into residential areas. The additional reinforcements along with cloud cover helping to block the sun’s intense rays helped slow the fire’s growth, officials told the Associated Press.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

A helicopter air tanker dumps water as the sun sets at the Beaver Creek wildfire outside Hailey, Idaho August 17, 2013.

Sunday was the first day since the fire broke out that Mother Nature aided firefighters. Calmer winds and a rise in humidity gave officials the chance to wage a ground and air attack against the flames. 

“Saturday was really, really scary, but things seem to be looking up a bit today,'' Carrie Morgridge, owner of Hailey Coffee Company, told Reuters. 

The fire has been fueled by gusting winds, feeding on dried brush and burning through sage and pine trees as it spread to the north. The Idaho blaze is one of 34 wildfires burning throughout the western United States, the product of a hot and dry summer. 

“This fire is consuming everything,” fire spokeswoman Madonna Lengerich told the AP. “The fire is so hot, it’s just cremating even the biggest trees.”

Retardant was being dropped Sunday on the flank of Bald Mountain — the Sun Valley Resort's primary ski hill — to reinforce a fire line, fire spokeswoman Shawna Hartman said. That meant the famed ski mountain known as "Baldy" and often used in publicity photos would have a red line of retardant visible from Ketchum.

Hartman said the drop was part of a plan by fire managers to bolster protection for the tony resort town, but  she noted the fire had not yet spread to the mountain.

Ashley Smith / Times News via AP

A helicopter descends in the Golden Eagle Subdivsion to refill with water from a pond while battling the Beaver Creek Fire.

While progress is coming slowly, the grueling conditions are taking their toll on the firefighters on the front lines. Those battling the flames are spending hours in hot, dangerous conditions carrying heavy gear necessary to contain the fire that is now larger than the city of Denver. 

"Firefighters have been getting their butts kicked," Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said at a community meeting on Saturday, according to KTVB. 

Residents of the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley said the fire was all anyone was talking about as the popular tourist destinations sat desolate, with stores and restaurants darkened. 

“I’ve never seen it like this,” Dale Byington, general manager of a restaurant in Ketchum, told the AP. “The only reason I opened was to give people here a place to go and get some food and drink, but that’s not going to happen.” 

Byington’s Sawtooth Club restaurant on Main Street in Ketchum was one of the few open in the area on Saturday, the AP reported, but it shut down early when hardly anyone showed up. 

“A lot of people are just watching the fire and our customers are talking about nothing else,” Alexis Sualez, a barista at a coffeehouse in Hailey, told Reuters. “People are worried.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Dry conditions fuel blazes in the U.S.


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